Monday, April 25, 2016

El Terremoto, Sismos, y Re'plicas (The Earthquake, Earthquakes, and Aftershocks)

It had been an enjoyable birthday.  I went with my wife to an almuerzo by the Rio Tomebamba here in Cuenca, hosted by two friends of ours, the Vaughns.  My birthday card was meaningful and given with love and care.  To top off the day, Carolyn Anne and I went and volunteered at Hogar Miguel Leon, a home for the orphans and the elderly here in the El Centro of Cuenca.  We had done several things we enjoyed doing. . . eating great food at Nuna, walking along Simon Bolivar in El Centro, and volunteering with the elderly Cuencanos and Cuencanas at Hogar Miguel Leon - and that last one for the first time for the both of us!  We had enjoyed a full but relaxing day.  

Carolyn Anne was sitting at the table enjoying a Skype session with some friends of ours from Michigan, and I likewise was at the table, then desktop computer desk when I felt a movement up. . . then down. . . the up and down some more. . . then left. . . . then right. . . and then I knew we were in an earthquake.  It's happened a few times before here in Cuenca, so not anything new.  Not what we had expected moving here, as my research showed that Cuenca was in - except for the Amazon region - the safest part of Ecuador to avoid experiencing any earthquakes.  

It continued to move the floor, knocking a couple of books off of the computer desk shelving unit.  Left and right, up and down. . . the motions continued.  I told Carolyn Anne, "Earthquake!  We have an earthquake!"  We need to sign off and attend to business, I remarked to our friends from the United States that we were Skyping to on our laptop with.  They thankfully sent us an email asking how we were doing moments later.  

I sized up the situation here: going out via the balcony was a death's wish. . . several stories downward to a certain death.  The elevator to our new modern condo building likely would not work, or lose power when we needed it most.  That left the stairs.  I remembered the 1994 Northridge Earthquake situation with an apartment building right next to Cal State Northridge near the epicenter of that famous and deadly quake.  The people in the top floors did quite well in surviving, and the people in the bottom two floors fared poorly or were dead.  I decided we would stick it out under the door frame of the kitchen, next to the entrance.  I was just about to call my wife to that location for sheltering in place when. . . 

It stopped.  Just.  Like.  That.  We had dodged a severe bullet, thank you God!  We caught our collective breaths and hugged.  

Immediately one of our expat neighbors who knew us, and knew we were from California's earthquake country, came knocking.  She was terrified out of her wits.  This was likely the largest earthquake this easterner (United States) had ever been through.  I assured her that she would be OK, and to relax.  Don't know if she took my advice or not, but I didn't see her anymore that eventful Saturday evening. 

Dawn came, and it was immediately obvious that Cuenca had come through the quake extremely well.  No signs of broken windows, walls, roof tiles, or really anything at all.  The City of the Four Rivers had emerged virtually completely unscathed, I learned later.  Needless to say we were all talking about el temblor as we greeted one another - Cuencano, Cuencana, o extranjero/a - at Iglesia Verbo that Sunday morning.  We quickly learned that several folks we knew among the natives had relatives that lived in the affected northern coastal zone that was at the center of the devastation.    

The week just passed was full of news of rescues, survival stories, and sadly death and devastation.  As time passed, it became evident that the Ecuadorian government was not in itself up to the task of fulfilling all the human needs in the areas most deeply affected in and near the coast.  The Ecuadorian people were willing and ready to help, and help they did.  Along with them has been the expat population, especially the one that resides with us in Cuenca, who at least one report says has been very generous in giving of their funds, water and food, and supplies.  The international community has also been helpful in the sending of funds, donations, and other needed supplies, with countries as far flung as South Korea, Israel, as well as ones in the Americas such as Canada and neighboring Colombia.  The UN is here and present with its relief efforts, too.  Ecuador is part of the community of nations, and has friends in its time of need.  

Christian ministries from the United States are here assisting those in great need in coastal Ecuador, including Samaritan's Purse, Compassion International, and World Vision.  I especially appreciate the quick work and advanced planning of Samaritan's Purse, whose practical work in disaster assistance I have admired from afar for many years.  Now I am in the same country - Ecuador - that is receiving their expert help.  They are far from the only ones providing help, and as I often say, "Ministry is a team sport," so together with so many other agencies, NGOs, volunteer groups, and governments, the need will be met.  Practical help that saves lives and cares for those in need are first priorities, and then the medium range activities that lead to rebuilding and restoring communities may take place.  I think most everyone involved agrees with that line of thought.  

The coordination of effort in the midst of a national disaster the size of this earthquake is so necessary to producing success in the relief efforts.  Already there are technical and logistics experts from several countries present, hopefully communicating and coordinating together in a unified nonduplicative way.  The US is here in this effort, among other activities offered and accepted by Ecuador, including USAid.  

In terms of Social Networking, coordination and agreement is not as easy, and some of the moderators of the Ecuador related groups I am a member in have had to issue warnings such as "no armchair quarterbacking of the first responders and people in the field providing assistance will be tolerated."  There's always someone who is of the mind to argue and pick a fight over something that at the moment truly is of no sizable consequence whatsoever. . . but they're everywhere, and have to be dealt with.  One of the admins of another group I'm in made it clear - speaking from a survival mode - that too much unnecessary traffic is taking place, too many people are coming into the affected areas creating extra demand for water and food when those supplies are already few or nonexistent, and to get help to everyone, not duplicate effort to some and leave beggars for water, for instance, at the side of the road literally thirsty.  You can tell that admin has had a difficult time of it post-earthquake.  Prayers for this dear soul.  

All over Cuenca one could visibly see the effects of the caring for the victims of the great earthquake at the coast.  Coral Hipermercardos had Cruz Roja Ecuadoriana volunteers to receive both nonfood donations from other stores at Mall del Rio, but also food and nonfood donations from purchases made in Coral itself.  Supermaxi (grocery chain) had at all its locations donation tables as well for the victims.  Parque Calderon had donations going all day and all evening. . . maybe longer than that.  The Oficina del Alcaldia - the mayor's office - had donations delivered to Cuenca city hall in El Centro.  Universities, colegios (high schools), elementary schools, malls, and even our own landlady of our condo building had supply drives to help the earthquake victims.  

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa declared an eight day period of mourning for the earthquake victims which started this past Saturday.  Flags are to be flown at half staff.  He's already toured the coast and made his presence known to the people, giving more than one speech on what comes next.  The week after the earthquake he ordered all bars and nonessential activities that would normally require a certain level of police presence - including sports matches (yes, fu'tbol) and the like to stop activities and in the case of bars, stop selling past 8:00 PM so as to allow for the police forces to be used in the affected coastal areas of Ecuador.    

As you can tell, this is kinda like Ecuador's September 11 moment.  It wasn't an enemy attack, but it does look like a war zone in some of the affected areas in the larger towns and coastal cities.  They (and we) will never forget.  

It has been good to hear from so many loved ones during the last several days, friends and family alike.  I've frankly lost count. . . and that was after two days.  Thank you for caring about us and Ecuador and its people.  Facebook has an app called "Are You Safe?" that they send to members in affected disaster areas, we found out soon enough.  I marked that we were safe, as Cuenca was as well.  Never knew that Facebook did such a thing.  Now we know.

Much of our communication has been on Facebook regarding the quake's aftermath, but some of you have emailed me too.  Remember we have two Skype accounts - regular video Skype with a computer and Skype Voice, where we can call you via Smartphone in the USA but I don't think you can call us, as Skype doesn't support service that way yet.  I understand no one calling us via regular telephone channels (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) as that's just plain expensive.  We're reachable, folks.  I even have a TripAdvisor account that allows for free private message communication should the need arise in an emergency.  Lastly, one may add comments to this very weblog.  I've published 12 of them to date.  

Ecuador has suffered its worst natural disaster since 1987.  Some are starting to say it will take years to get back to normal, and I'd tend to agree.  Call it Ecuador's Hurricane Katrina, and you'll understand that kinda timeline.  Let's hope and pray that recovery comes sooner rather than later, though.  

If you can actually come to Ecuador and visit - and even help in the relief efforts - in the medium to long term time frame, I'd love to hear from you.  Groups are always better.  I speak from experience (1985 Mexico City Earthquakes - two of 'em - short term church missions volunteer with El Ejercito de Salvacio'n [The Salvation Army] of Mexico).  I likely can connect you to those whom you could collaborate with in providing relief.  Please let me know if you'd want to do that, and may God bless you as you consider such an effort.     

Saturday, April 16, 2016

It Takes Two to Tengo (and other language learning adventures)

It's been a while since I've updated where I am regarding our learning of la lengua materna here in Ecuador, Spanish.  I'll try to be serious, but believe me, there's humor interspersed for the taking!

Presently I am not teaching or tutoring near as much as I had hoped to, largely due to my adult student "dropping out" in an informal way, likely to save face.  The machismo culture found in Latin America is one where you don't admit fault or weakness, and the cessation of class sessions on his part without any formal notification is the result.  That's the way it goes, and so I don't get the Spanish interaction I had been getting through him.  I'm looking at another venue where I may informally hold conversation with native Spanish speakers in English, but haven't done anything just yet.  

So I have in at least the last few weeks been relying more on Duolingo on the 'Net for Spanish language interaction.  Not as spontaneous or unstructured as a live conversation with a native Spanish speaker, but it will do.  I have since January been completing what's known as a "reverse tree" where one knows Spanish (I do: I completed the English speaker learning Spanish "tree" around Christmas) and learns English.  What that does is test my Spanish language abilities and finds out just how much Spanish I really know in the "learning" of English, from a Spanish speaker's point of view.  Since I am a native English speaker, I am really finding a "reverse" or backhanded way to see how much Spanish I really know.  I'm game, and the system allows me to take lessons this way.  

As I expected, I am spending more time with articles and verbs.  I need work in these areas, and over time (currently I'm on a 285 consecutive day streak on Duolingo) I'm getting better in the use of these parts of speech.  But it's a struggle at times, I'll admit.

Take soy and estoy for example.  In English, you simply say "I am."  In Spanish, however, there's a distinction going on that you have to think about as you are talking or writing.  Soy is permanent, as in "I am a boy."  (Yo soy un nin~o.)  Unless you are making the Bruce Jenner argument - let's not go there, please - you are a boy permanently.  So soy is used.  

Estoy cansado, on the other hand, is temporary.  Furthermore, it is a feeling.  You feel tired.  I am tired.  Therefore, estoy cansado/I am tired (from an experiential perspective).  And you won't feel tired forever, another reason to use estoy.  

While I'm at it, cansado is tired, while casado is married.  One letter makes all the difference!  Not to mention peine, which means "comb," and pene, which means. . . you know.  Yep, one letter makes a huge difference.  

There's a number of words that are used in Spanish that are not ever used in English.  Here's a phrase: at nine (o'clock).  In English, you merely say "at nine." In Spanish you say a las nueve/"at the nine," which has the meaning of "at nine," as we say in English.  This takes practice to add from a native English speaker's perspective, dear friends!  Trust me on this: old habits are hard to break.  

Furthermore, why do they use "las" and not "la?"  It's not "las nueves" or any plural like that.  Can be confusing, folks.  This is what I mean about articles being confusing.  One can be just one letter off in a sentence in Duolingo and the whole sentence is marked wrong as a result.  Frustrating to say the least.  

Consider the simple sentence "You did go to church."  In Spanish this becomes Tu fuiste a la iglesia.  We native English speakers would call the "la" superfluous, but in Spanish it's incorrect to leave the article out of the sentence.  It's what I call a "hidden" article, and one has to learn and know when to insert articles such as these.  Practice!  Notice in the above example sentence the double use of "you" employed.  There is Tu - the familiar form of you - used at the beginning, and -te added to fuis to drive the article home again in the sentence.  If you miss it once, you get it again. . . that's Spanish grammar for you.  So the English translation of the Spanish sentence spoken in "dorkese" English is "You (did) go [you] to [the] church."  Gotta include the -te as well as the la or Duolingo marks the sentence as incorrect.  

Where is a native Spanish speaker to model after in situations like the one I just mentioned above. . . (sigh)  It would surely help!

Articles in a Spanish sentence don't take the same locations in an English sentence.  For example, take "This shoe fits me well."  In Spanish this becomes Este zapato me queda bien.  Notice it's me queda and not "queda me."  One uses Spanish grammar in a Spanish sentence. . . and has to have that Spanish language mindset as one approaches using the language.  Otherwise you're pounding square pegs into round holes grammarwise.  Quite the losing battle, and Duolingo will let you know each and every mistake you make along the way.  

So one has to think, for example, "This shoe me fits well."  That's not grammatical English, but it's grammatical Spanish in English word form.  Take it one step further, and keep the words en Espan~ol thinking in Spanish as you say or write the sentence.  This is the crux of the matter as one constructs longer and more precise and complex Spanish sentences.  

Let's go up a step.  Take "She did not ask me."  This becomes Ella no me pregunto'.  Notice the location of the words. . . "She (did) not me ask."  Sounds kinda dorky when you say it in English, right?  (smile)  That's my observation too from an native English speaker's standpoint.  Don't stay with "Tonto language" like what you may remember from The Lone Ranger films. . . Necesitas traducir las palabras en Espan~ol.  Take it the whole way.  Ella no me pregunto'.  Thinking thoughts like that en Espan~ol over time becomes a way of life. 

Another one: "He did not find me."  This becomes E'l no me encontro.  The "dorky" way to say it is "He (did) not me find."  There's a lot of "not me" or no me in Spanish sentences and conversation.  After a while it becomes reflexive with practice.  

Some verb conjugations, sad to say, are obscure and not used as much, making them harder to get right in a sentence.  For example, "You did not find me."  Sounds similar - in English, anyway - to our previous sentence, right?  However, en Espan~ol, it becomes Tu no me encontraste.  Enconstraste?  How did they come up with that one?  I can conjugate the present tense of encontrar (find, encounter, come upon) all day long: yo encuentro, tu encuentras, nosotros encontramos, ellos encuentran.  Still learning as you can see.  I know. . . it's an "-as ending with the extra -te thrown in.  The double "you" employed here.  Takes practice.  

Back to "dorkese," if you will.  Here's a sentence: "I have already done it."  This becomes Ya lo he hecho.  In dorkese English that's "Already it (I) have done."  As you can see, the word order based on Spanish grammar rules are entirely different than found in English usage.  Which word to start out with?  "Already."  I have that down pat, thankfully.  The "it" comes next, and I'm still learning that part.  "I have" comes last in terms of articles in this sentence, and finally we have our verb "done" (present perfect).  Talk about shaking up your language world and spitting it out. . . that's how a sentence like that feels to me.  I feel "naked" and wonder what word comes next, in what order.  But, on the other hand, it's beautiful romance language phrasing that rolls off the tongue with remarkably few syllables.

One rule is to place the pronouns before the verbs.  Take for example "They can reach us."  This becomes Ellos nos pueden alcanzar.  Dorkese: "They us can reach."  Notice the pronouns coming first, in order: they and us.  Notice also another Spanish grammar rule employed: the first verb is conjugated (pueden) and the second verb is left as an unconjugated infinitive (alcanzar.)  Practice. . . getting there!  It helps that in Cuenca there is a lodging called "Mansion Alcanzar" which caters to expats. . . literally it means "mansion to reach."  Not a bad name to have if one desires to reach Cuenca and wants to remember the name of the place you want to stay at. . . reach for alcanzar.  Makes sense!

Deja is not deja vu (which is French for "already seen."  Deja (en Espan~ol) is "(he/she/formal you//let/left/leave."  But "let's go" is vamos, or in imperative form, !Vamonos!  The verb swallows up the . . . verb.  What's that all about?  Your guess is as good as mine!  Actually, vamos - "we go" - is in its many conjugations of ir - to go - one of the stronger verb forms in Spanish.  Voy a has the sense of "I am going to" or "I will go to."  And it's always voy a never forgetting the a.  That's the grammar rule.

If you've read this far, congratulations!  You have a good sense, I hope, of the "mountain" that learning the finer points of Spanish entails.  I'm far past the beginning level, and am solidly in the intermediate or advanced levels, depending on what part of my language abilities are being tested.  The easy work of review of elementary Spanish has already been done.  What remains is climbing the higher reaches - the "Matterhorn" of more precise and ultimately useful Spanish speaking and writing.  I had hoped to be able to get by here in Ecuador with what I already knew of my elementary and conversational level Spanish.  Yet I am at levels never previously attained.  At my older age, that's quite an achievement and one I'm glad to be still working on.  The ability to understand and converse and participate in Spanish language conversations here in Cuenca - after all, it's the language they use everyday - is gratifying, and one finds that the Cuencanos/as amongst us are just like the ones we knew in Southern California, and have quite a lot in common.  Knowing more Spanish simply opens up one's world to a whole lot more, living in their land, their culture, and their language.  

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Technology Breaking Through!

After much concerted effort - and the legendary required Ecuadorian patience - in seeing several technology related projects through to their completion, we're making actual headway on them.  You have no idea how glad I am to report on these developments!

Our concerns and problems developed back last December, as my December 13th post entitled "The Long and Winding Road Towards Computer Functionality" will attest to.  Since then, I tried to enlist the services of what I have termed Tech guy(s) #3, but after the Christmas and New Year's holidays they were no longer living in Cuenca!  One had moved back to the States, the other was now in Quito.  Young guys that never bothered to tell me their very near term living plans.  Not at all professional.  Well. . . cross them off the calling list.  (sigh)

I soon engaged the technical services of Tech guy #4, who I don't mind revealing as Tony Bishop, easily the most recommended and perhaps most used computer tech guy in Cuenca from an expat perspective, according to Gringo Post, at least.  Week after week, month after month, Tony has come here to our condo to do the necessary troubleshooting, repair, removal and reinstallation of software on both the laptop and the desktop computers.  Rarely has Tony had to take a computer home with him to his home shop, but when he did, he brought it back the next day (or business day if picked up on a Friday).  We have gotten to know Tony (and via telephone, his wife Kathi) rather well, and are definitely as of now "heavy users" of their services.  Unlike the previous tech guys, Tony is unfailingly reliable, honest and fair in his dealings with us.  Everything that needed looking after and repairing or fixing has been done to the computers, to our relief.  Onward to the non computer technology areas that have needed attention for so long.  

As you may recall, we recently purchased an Android version Smartphone through the help of our landlady last January.  With it, we can make standard calls to people we know in Cuenca (limited time per month on our Claro plan, which is the second highest featured/expensive two year contract plan Claro offers), and make unlimited WhatsApp calls in Ecuador for *free.*  

Yesterday I finally had the time and opportunity (when Carolyn Anne leaves the condo with the Smartphone, I don't have the opportunity) to finally pay for and test/verify the international calling capabilities of Skype Voice (Skype without the camera and live video feature).  Another new project done and completed, having never done this type of activity before.  You have to pay via credit card (or PayPal or other choices if you prefer) and wouldn't you know it, my first choice in credit card declined the sale twice.  That's due to the increased fraud policing the credit card companies are doing, btw.  I later had a talk with Capital One and got the issue resolved to my satisfaction.  The credit card issuers really want to hear from you before you make a purchase, obviously.  So noted. . . (sigh)

I used our Credit Union's credit card to complete the purchase of service from Skype, and I even had to answer some security questions on the secured Internet site, as well as having to input the password for the credit card itself.  Not knowing what that password was, I reset it and the transaction went through just fine.  Good thing I had spoken by telephone to the Credit Union in the last two weeks, though.  Without that, I likely would have been declined by them as well.  

Now that I had "loaded" our Skype account with funds, and had chosen where in the world we would be calling (the United States at $5.99 a month when purchased for 12 months: worldwide coverage is currently $13.99 a year), I had to find out if our friends and family would be able to call us via Skype Voice.  Perusing the Skype Internet site, it appears the answer is no.  Though we are living in Ecuador, Skype doesn't have the software set up to allow for calls from the USA to Ecuador.  It *does* allow us to call from Ecuador to the US. . . the main point of our efforts).  That's to any cell or landline telephone, btw.  One can(for an extra cost) get a Skype Voice telephone number for folks in the USA to call you if you lived in Mexico or Brazil. . . or other selected First World nations.  But since we live in Ecuador, it's not possible.

So, we can at least make telephone calls we haven't been able to make in months from our residence.  It's never happened while living in Ecuador until yesterday, either.  We'd always walk a block away to a neighborhood cabina de Internet and see Juan, the ever smiling dueno of the Internet cafe/telephone booth calling center and pay 10 cents per minute for the privilege.  No more.  No need to.  Yes, there's been the upfront costs of purchasing the Smartphone, getting the Claro telephone service, and getting Skype international calling service.  But that 10 cents per minute adds up quickly.  Nine hours is the equivalent cost of having the monthly Claro service and the Skype service, and anything over that spent to a rented service such as a cabina de Internet is money misspent.  Making calls using our own Smartphone with the Claro service and Skype Voice to the USA is unlimited minutes, and after nine hours a month, essentially "free."  Knowing how my dear wife loves to talk on the telephone, believe me, we've made the economical choice. . . and it's much more convenient, too.  No more not making calls on holidays - Ecuadorian or not - when family run businesses such as a cabina de Internet is closed.  No more having to wait until the local cabina de Internet is open.  Now we have real utility and convenience at a much more reasonable price overall.  

We made a number of calls to the US yesterday, and I know our friends were glad to hear from us (the flip side is also true: we were glad to hear them, too).  Voice quality using the VOIP technology was reasonably good to very good, and overall better than when we last used regular Skype (with video camera).  So we're pleased.  We'll be making calls to the US on a regular basis over time, and will do our best to be regularly in contact that way.  Again, unfortunately, there apparently is no Skype Voice service that allows for calls from the United States to Ecuador at the present.  

Meanwhile, on another technological front, we now have a new flatscreen television that is connected to our VHS/DVD recorder/player we brought from the States ($395 from our tech guy Tony Bishop).  It's a TCL model 28 inch screen, which fits the entertainment center supplied by our landlady (our condo comes furnished).  TCL - The Creative Life - is a Chinese brand, allegedly the third largest television brand in the world.  The television we purchased is made here in Ecuador.  Our landlady's old tube type television can only be used for cable television and does not have the HDMI jacks necessary for playing DVDs, etc.  We did bring over some DVDs to watch that we transported from the US, and have enjoyed a couple so far.  The DVD player will also play our CDs as well. . . nice bonus!

With both of these developments fully completed and available to us to use, Carolyn Anne is beside herself and is in a delightful mood.  Just in time for our wedding anniversary, too.  Great timing, Lord!  But then again, proper and persistent diligence has provided a way to get these projects fulfilled.  We have to do our part, too.  

Coming up *very* soon (as in next week): the arrival of an Amazon Fire streaming box for television (no need to turn on higher cost cable TV service).  More economical, too.  Cost: $100 and comes direct from the US via a "mule" Tony Bishop uses.  (A "mule" is expat talk for a courier that travels internationally on an airplane, carrying items of value for those on the receiving end of their journey).  The main reason why Amazon Fire is being used is due to its ability to be used in a condo building/dormitory environment, where there are several other residents connected to similar gadgets.  One of the goals in using VPN technology such as Amazon Fire is to "trick" the provider(s) desired into thinking you are in a different country than where you actually are (in our case, we're actually in Ecuador, but want United States programming).  It also has 4K capability and offers plenty of programming, albeit slanted towards whatever Amazon offers or sells.  Tony states that there's a way around that via the Roku app available on the unit.  I definitely want to see how that all works out.  

So as you can see, we're getting caught up techwise to where we may enjoy communicating with those we love, and experience some worthwhile programming of choice as well.  Lots of $1.50 pirate DVDs out there for us to buy, and as long as we don't take them out of Ecuador on an airplane, we're essentially good to go.  Difficult to find regular DVDs that are not pirated versions in the tiendas here, so we're kinda stuck with the pirate versions.  As far as newer original programming goes, that's where the Amazon Fire TV streaming device comes into play.  Looking forward to it, and enjoying the hard weeks and months of tech development that has allowed us to get to this point.      

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Health Insurance in Ecuador

Today I went to our pharmacy, Farmacia Desarollo Social y Ninez para la Familia (owned and operated by the Ecuadorian government, by the way) and thought since it's close to the start of April, might as well check with our health insurance provider, Instituto Ecuadoriano de Seguridad Social, or IESS for short and find out how we start using their system for health services.  So I took off to El Centro (downtown) for these things.  

After taking the Cuenca Transito bus to the Mercado 10 de Agosto stop, I hoofed it as usual five blocks north to Farmacia Desarollo Social.  Takes ten minutes and is good walking exercise for me.  Carlos, the pharmacist on duty virtually every time I go there, filled our expensive but short list of prescriptions - just two of them this time - and I wished him a Feliz Pascua (Happy Easter).  Nice to not have to go to another surcusal (branch) of the Farmacia to get the rest that might be lacking at this main location.  That usually entails a walk along Calle Simon Bolivar several blocks to the San Blas location, which is also the name of one of Cuenca's older Roman Catholic churches as well as its namesake park.  Fifteen minutes with a gentle downslope to it.  

So I have some time to ask some questions of the folks at IESS.  I head there on foot for several blocks, about a ten minute walk.  On the way I encounter some tourists from as it turns out Norway.  They speak English, but it's not their home language.  First day these young gals have been in Cuenca, and is their first time in Ecuador.  Veterans at exploring Argentina a few years ago, though.  I ask them if they have a map and know their way around.  They do.  We smile and continue our separate ways.

Gran Colombia, one of the main east/west streets in Cuenca, is closed off to vehicular traffic due to construction on the Tranvia, or light rail system that was supposed to be finished at the end of 2015.  Now we hear that it will be done by the end of 2016, according to the mayor's office (la oficina de la alcalde).  There's 24 hour a day nonstop construction to help get the work done and allow the businesses affected to retain their customers to the extent possible.  I saw quite a number of storefronts closed shut and locked. . . not a good sign.  Some said they had relocated, one to the El Arenal sector (where Feria Libre is located, the largest mercado in all of Cuenca).  The larger businesses and those with more than one location in town (or in the country) tended to be the ones that stayed open.  The little guy with a family owned and operated tienda truly has suffered during the Tranvia construction.  

I reflected as I was walking along Gran Colombia how we had first entered Cuenca along this very street on the intercity bus.  It took us from the west along Ordonez Lasso, through the El Centro/downtown where it changes name to Gran Colombia, and out to the Terminal Terrestre bus station by the airport on the eastside.  Now it was all torn up, some areas in dirt, some with orange plastic piping holding electrical cable of some kind - an educated guess - and some already done in concrete and ready for the rails to be laid.

At the end of walking several blocks, I came to the IESS building at Gran Colombia and Mariano Cueva.  This is where my wife and I came when we enrolled for IESS health insurance.  This time I was by myself.  
I knew I needed to go to a different floor to get information about medication coverage and the like.  Was it the third floor?  I looked at the directory in Spanish, and decided that perhaps the third floor was a good place to try.  I encountered a few employees doing this, and eventually ended up in the presence of young Andrea, on the sixth floor.  She spoke conversational English, having spent time living in New York.  This happens more than one realizes. . . quite a few Ecuadorians travel abroad to practice their English and to work for more money while they are young, as well for further educational opportunities at the university level.  

Back to the Tranvia before I forget.  One of the employees there at the third floor asked me about what I thought about the Tranvia.  I told him I thought it was going to help Cuenca and Azuay Province quite a bit, but in the short term there was a high price to pay with shuttered stores, people's livelihoods at risk due to the construction dislocations, and the ever inflating cost of the total construction expense.  That last one hit home with him.  He clearly thought it was too expensive for the people to afford.  (Yes, this conversation was in English.)  

Looking over the document on medications I had prepared, Andrea on the sixth floor searched on her desktop computer to find out if they were provided free of charge to insured IESS members or not.  A good number of them were.  Those that were not were typically name brand drugs, or expensive medications that were not made in Ecuador and had to be imported.  The end result after going through all of these medications line by line was that IESS will from all accounts likely pay for around $70 of our (currently) ~$300 monthly prescription bill.  These lower cost prescriptions IESS will be happy to provide to us at their dispensary.  This is less than what I hoped they would provide, but any help at this point is welcome.  One way to look at it is that we pay the IESS health insurance premiums of around $85 each month, and the free prescriptions we get are around the same cost of the premiums.  So we do get to enjoy a cost reduction from this point on, just not as much as we might have hoped.  

Up next for IESS health coverage and care: calling the call center for getting an appointment to see an IESS doctor.  They likely will ask questions, and determine if you need to stay on the medications you are currently using.  They may authorize providing for free some medications that Andrea at the IESS central office didn't say would be provided for free, but that's just an educated guess on my part.  

My coverage starts April 1, and Carolyn Anne's starts May 1, being listed as my dependent on the IESS application.  As you can see, if you know our story from the many posts here at this very weblog, due to the length of time it took to get our pensionado retirement visa from Ecuador due in large part to the fingerprint requirements set out by Ministario, we are way behind the curve on getting IESS insurance benefits compared to other extranjeros that arrived in Ecuador the same month and year we did.  But that's life.  Never fair, but we have to roll with the punches.  And we have been, paying for doctors and medications out of pocket since we have arrived. . . without complaint, I may add.  

I asked Andrea if IESS has a specialist for arthritis pain such a rheumatologist in the United States.  "!Oh, a reumatologo!" she exclaimed.  "Sure!  We have one that we refer patients to that is at Hospital Monte Sinai.  He's available to her if she needs one.  Remember to see the IESS doctor for the referral first, though."  I smiled and thanked Andrea for the patient, and thoroughgoing information afforded me this afternoon.  Hospital Monte Sinai is where Carolyn Anne had her last fall, if you remember, and went to their emergency room (cost: $68 as it's a private hospital).  It also has the one farmacia in Cuenca that carries medications no one else seems to carry.  A quality hospital in our estimation.    

Upon coming home today, Carolyn Anne remarked - again - that she needed to go immediately to bed for rest due to arthritis pain.  An 8 out of 10 today, she said.  I don't enjoy hearing that and frankly I'm at my wit's end on what to do. . . but pray.  That's the beginning and the end of what I can do.  I can't make the pain go away.  I can see what can be done about it, and I am delighted to hear that a pain specialist such as a rheumatologist is available through our new IESS health insurance.  Hopefully there will be some new treatment or medication regimen that will help my dear wife.  

In the interim of late, Carolyn Anne has been seeing a doctor at Clinica Hogar in El Centro where she has spent a good amount of time volunteering to see what if anything can be done to help with the arthritic joint pain all over her body.  Her advice to her is to change the diet to some degree by eliminating items such as cheese, red meat, tomatoes (tomatoes!), oils including salad dressings, and breadings on meats.  I'm sure the doctor means well, but after looking at information on the 'Net from the Arthritis Foundation, I can see that the jury is still out on some of these statements.  One person's solution may not work for another.  Every person is an individual, and there is likely not one uniform method or diet that works for all sufferers.  

This lady doctor did put her on a couple of new (expensive) medications.  I told Carolyn Anne we can try these things - medications, diet - for a month give or take and evaluate how she is responding from there.  I think that makes some sense given the level of pain she is suffering and has suffered.  I can tell you one thing, though: here in Ecuador, with the care and easygoing thoroughness the doctors provide in caring for their patients, Carolyn Anne would likely never had gotten that level of individual attention and care if we had stayed in California.  That you may be assured of!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Ambassador

The ambassador was in Cuenca yesterday.  It's not every day one gets to meet an ambassador, and a good number of expats decided to make plans to meet him in person by sending their reservations to the consulate.  The agreed upon meeting space was at the Camara de Comercio - Chamber of Commerce - of Cuenca, which had a meeting room on the ground floor that could hold around 150 seated attendees.  

This man, who looked to be in his 50's, had traveled to other countries during his life and had life experience behind him in knowing where some desirable places to live were in the world. . . and where there were some - ahem - real hell holes.  It was a "Town Hall" style meeting, and naturally there were a number of questions asked of him on a wide range of topics.  Knowing the type of crowd that was present, a request was made to *not* release what was discussed to the general public, and I think that request was honored, respecting the person from whom it came from.  It's helpful to have people from one country working together in a unified direction and having a common purpose.  Nice to see that for a change.  

Here's an ambassadorial story that came from a high source: one who had joined the Foreign Service some time ago knew of a newly appointed ambassador to a foreign country.  To be appointed by the President of the United States of America for such a post was indeed a high honor, and this new ambassador was bursting with enthusiasm upon selection.  The day came not too long afterwards when he got the call from none other than the then US Secretary of State George P. Shulz, who had the honor of serving under President Ronald Reagan.  "Why don't you come up to my office for a chat before you go and leave Washington," he messaged this new emissary.  The reply was immediate, and he went up to Foggy Bottom to pay a visit shortly afterwards.  

"Where exactly is your country on a map?" Secretary Shulz inquired.  The eager young ambassador looked at a globe on a nearby shelf and grabbed it, spinning it around to where his country was.  "Here, Mr. Secretary, here's my country!" beamed the young appointee.  "No. . . that's not your country!  HERE'S your country!" retorted Mr. Shulz in a fatherly tone as he spun the globe back to the Western Hemisphere and pointed directly at the United States.  ". . . And don't you ever forget it!" he barked at the wet behind the ears confirmee.  

Quite a lesson on whose country we represent from a Foreign Service perspective. . . one that quite likely still gets passed down throughout the Foreign Service Officer corps over the years.  

It really is an honor meeting an ambassador.  Not everyone is one, of course, and so seeing one in person is special.  Getting to know an ambassador means getting to know the country he represents, its people, its purposes, and even benefitting from the gifts it gives to the world.  

An ambassador is also a public face from one country to another.  So the ambassador put on slacks, shoes and socks, a clean shirt, and came looking like the professional representative he is. 

Everywhere the ambassador goes, whether he realizes the high position of his office or not, he creates either good or bad will towards the people who see him.  At least in Ecuador, according to one ambassador, the people in Ecuador look favorably on Americans (United Statesians, to be precise) and this is especially true here in Cuenca.  Good behavior creates goodwill, to be sure, and that ambassador surely enjoyed experiencing it as he came to Cuenca for the very first time.  

Reading up on Ecuador, his new assignment, the ambassador quickly found information on the large and increasing expat population here in Cuenca.  He read some of their weblogs, viewed a number of photographs extolling the beauty and opportunities here, and even viewed some of the videos uploaded to YouTube. . . and laughed at a number of comedic moments they captured!  What talent among the expats!  What an engaging, welcoming community that awaited him!  He couldn't wait to get here.  

On the other hand, the ambassador had experienced less than desirable living locations and situations at previous diplomatic posting locations.  Riots and their aftermath with the ensuing ethnic and spiritual tension, effects of illegal drug trade, deprivation up to and including loss of life lie in the back of the ambassador's mind.  Recently one such ambassador has had to experience the grief of hearing of the massacre of a fellow ambassador and the associated death of fellow embassy officials while living in that part of the Muslim world.  In answering a question about the Quito embassy facility, he remarked, "I too lament that a visit to our embassy often is a less than welcoming experience for those of our country.  But, in light of the very real threats towards our country and its diplomatic corps, one has to understand the need for that kind of security.  It's very much required, frankly."  

You may have thought I have been speaking of newly appointed US Ambassador to Ecuador Todd C. Chapman in my reflection above.  Not totally.  Actually, I too am an ambassador. . . I too represent my country wherever I go, like it or not.  How do I know this?  Mr. Chapman astutely stated so in his remarks to the assembled audience he spoke to at the Camera de Comercio in Cuenca.  I take that duty directly from him.  And there's a whole lot more of us US expats here in Cuenca and Ecuador than him.  We see plenty more people in country than he ever will.  The official US Ambassador is merely the tip of the iceberg so to speak when it comes to (high level political) representation of the US towards Ecuador.  

Few know it, but I am also the nephew of a since deceased US State Department official who gallantly served his country in the European Theater of World War II, as well as in the Korean War.  He was one of the very few survivors of the Battle of Pork Chop Hill, as it turns out. . . something that a member of what television journalist Tom Brokaw called in his eponymous book "The Greatest Generation" would never mention to his extended family on visits.  After serving in the US Army during both wars in succession, my uncle William Cox had a career in the US State Department, serving in such posts as Canberra, Australia and Tehran, Iran.  It was his Tehran experience that lent him to perform his last official duties, briefing the press each morning for 444 days on the Iranian hostage crisis, where 52 fellow Americans - a good number of whom he had to have known and worked with - were held against their will at the US Embassy compound in Tehran, Iran.  

ABC News' Ted Koppel, creator of "Nightline," originally envisioned to be a temporary news update program on the hostages in Iran, never featured my uncle. . . likely due to a different time schedule Mr. Koppel worked that prevented him from attending those morning press briefings.  He was instead mentioned as the State Department spokesman in the daily AP news wire stories.  All my uncle wanted was to be allowed to turn in his retirement papers so he could visit his extended family across the country in his gold 1973 Volkswagen Super Beetle.  He had been diagnosed with cancer, and time was of the essence in making those family visits he so cherished.  You see, at the core of being a diplomat is personal and especially family relationships.  

The apostle Paul, writing to the church at Corinth a second time, made the case for representing Christ Jesus.  As one who walks with Jesus Christ, I take heed to the following words: Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  (2 Corinthians 5:20, English Standard Version)

That, my friends, is the ultimate ambassadorship!  I for one do not take that position lightly.  I thank US Ambassador to Ecuador Todd Chapman for his seasoned, well considered perspective on being an ambassador for one's country - the United States of America.  Yet, according to the apostle Paul elsewhere in his letter to the church at Philippi, "but our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ"  (Philippians 3:20, English Standard Version)  Those of us who name the name of Christ are dual citizenship: of earth, and of heaven.  As is true of any ambassador, the world is watching us.  It's doubly true here for my wife and I in Ecuador.       

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Tranquilo Life

Ch - ch - ch - changes that have come about after over a year of living here in Ecuador in the tranquilo city of Cuenca: I can't begin to list all of them in a comprehensive way, but I'll attempt to provide a portrait of what that looks like in everyday life here from our perspective.  Here goes!

Tranquilo, or tranquil, is well translated into peaceful, easy, serene, quiet, relaxed, unconcerned, calm, still, quiet.  You get the idea.  The Eagles had a song "Peaceful Easy Feeling" that expresses much of the same theme.  Laidback to be sure!  For the third largest city in Ecuador to be described that way is quite a compliment. . . but for a larger city of around 500,000 people, Cuenca deserves it.  It really is safe, quiet (by Latin America standards, anyway) and serene.  

It used to be that when I was working in Southern California I would get up at 5:00 AM or in that time frame.  I would be leaving the house by 6, arriving at work by 7 or 7:30 AM, for work starting at 8:00 AM.  These days I get up around 6 or 7 AM, and sometimes don't leave the condo to take our chihuahua out for his daily duty until 8 AM!  Quite a change from what hours I used to keep.  

It gets better.  Instead of having to deal with the unyielding bureaucracy of the educational institution I used to work for, and the youth that had such intractable (with few exceptions) attitudes towards learning and improving one's mind and station in life, I get to work for myself in tutoring English to natives here in Ecuador.  I also work with Arco Language Institute, a small school, that is actively working to make learning English enjoyable and attainable, having motivated youth and adults for students.  Students that actually want to learn and are motivated to achieve educational goals in life. . . a breath of fresh air.  I pinch myself sometimes. . . (smile)

Each day I get to decide what needs to be done.  Everyone has tasks to do, whether in the workforce or retired, as we are now.  Today I knew would be a good day to visit the mercado - market - and get some fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as get some meats and cheeses from Supermaxi.  Every Friday Supermaxi, a grocery chain here in Ecuador kinda like Vons or Albertson's back in the States, offers a ten per cent discount on meats. .  . pays for the bus fare getting there and back (actually more, the way I buy meat there).  And it was time to visit Coral, the cadena de hipermercados - chain of hypermarkets - that is akin to Costco or Sam's Club in the States.  Regular grocery list shopping time.  I would rather shop on a weekday than on Saturday or Sunday when the stores are busier, and Friday offers that Supermaxi discount on carnes (meats).  So off I went to three places today.  

Carolyn Anne prefers the fresh tomatoes that are higher in quality (and cost 30 per cent less than Coral) available at Mercado Diez de Agosto, so that was my first stop.  I can breeze in and out of there using Cuenca Transito bus in less than an hour.  I had a nice conversation with a Cuencana on why I shopped at Diez de Agosto versus going to the largest such mercado in Cuenca, the humongous Feria Libre - Free Fair - which I could actually walk to if Ichose to do so.  "The safety issues surrounding the place, as well as general cleanliness," I allowed as I replied en Espanol.  She agreed with me, although she was a regular shopper at Feria Libre.  My wife's profesora de Espanol - 
Spanish teacher - had her purse snatched at Feria Libre, so it's not uncommon for those concerns to take center stage in one's choice of location when shopping at a mercado.  

One turn to the right as I entered the mercado building, and one turn to the left after the first aisle, and I was at my regular vendor of frutas y vegatales, Alexandra and her mother (and father).  Alexandra is young, energetic, and with a ready smile.  "Buenos dias, David. . .?Que quieres hoy? she begins as she is already serving two or three other clientes at her part of the aisle.  I recite step by step the items I'm looking for today.  "Y por favor deseo los melones mas duro esta vez," I remind our erstwhile empresaria.  Last time, the cantaloupes became too soft early on, and were on the way towards becoming rotten.  The bananas are usually yellow and towards ripeness here, and on the smaller side. . . but I get a bunch for just a dollar.  Usually 8 or 9 of them, too.  Combined with the good prices on the melones, the pin~as (pineapples) and the green skinned naranjas - oranges - I don't mind the less than perfect looking bananas.  At ten cents or therabouts apiece, I can't complain about the price of "going bananas."  The oranges, by the way, are 6 for a dollar or 12 for $2.  Once you peel 'em, you can't tell the difference from the imported ones from the United States. . . often from California, which cost triple the Ecuadorian sourced green skinned ones.  

I walk back to the bus parada across from Hotel Milan, where we stayed at while visiting Cuenca our first time.  It's only a couple of blocks, and you share the sidewalk with pretty much everybody.  Often I see foreign Gringa tourists as I do so, and their casual clothing and backpacks often give them away, if not their use of English.  They rarely say hello to me, though I've tried to greet them over the past months.  It's as though I've become one of them. . . the native Cuencanos.  Oh, well.  Their loss.  The native Cuencanos, by the way, often will give you a "Buenos dias" or at least an "Hola" as you walk past them.  You're in close proximity with folks here, and not what you would find in Southern California or a lot of the United States.  Here, resources are more precious, and everyone shares the common space.  

Looking up ahead, I notice that there's a woman cooking some carne of some sort, and she is using a coffee can with embers in it that offers up a burnt smell that signifies a pedestrian obstacle. . . and a place not to put your foot near!  You see street vendors like her all the time here in Cuenca and Ecuador, and you can buy literally everything from aguacate to yuca on the sidewalks here, especially on the corners.  Cocos are a favorite, and you can buy pieces for around a dollar (a whole coconut goes for about that same price at the mercado. . . such is the price of convenience for the cliente and the opportunity for the vendedor.)  

Having walked my ten pound bag loaded with fruits and vegetables to the bus stop, I get on my bus.  You don't want to get on one that's too crowded, because then it's harder to get off towards the rear door, where you are supposed to walk towards to exit the bus.  This morning I see the bus isn't too crowded, and I get on.  "Gracias, conductor," I respond as I climb the steps and place my bus pass card on the electronic reader.  I have learned the art of walking down the aisle of the bus.  Depending on how vigorous the conductor is with his driving, I have learned to walk during the third or fourth gears as the earlier gears are often with jolts that upset one's balance standing up.  Some of the drivers are more kind to the passengers and the equipment they drive, and are more gentle in going through the gears (and the frenos - brakes).  

I get off at the marked bus stop this time.  Sometimes the driver will let me off in between official bus stops (marked with a blue sign), sometimes not.  This one does it by the book.  I walk back to our building and watch my steps.  Uneven walking surfaces exist all over Cuenca and Ecuador, and it pays to watch everything every moment, as construction changes things sometimes and potholes develop (and rarely if ever get repaired in a better condition anytime soon).  Drivers let me pass through as I cross the redondel by our building, and are polite in doing so.  Trying to do that back home in the Antelope Valley of California would get you killed quickly. . . and the drivers there are not used to seeing a large volume of pedestrians.  Here in Cuenca, it's routine.  

Once I've unloaded the purchases, it's off to Supermaxi El Vergel for the discounted items I seek.  I talk with a Cuencana passenger as we get off at the Planetario, and she asks me about my legs.  I tell her that the condition runs in my family, and that I am diabetic.  "?Tienes sal en la dieta con comidas?" she asks me.  I respond no. . . I don't use salt in my food like Ecuadorians generally do.  She smiles, and is happy she has checked in with me about my health.  This is common due to the appearance of my legs, which is not typically seen here.  

As I walk up the street to Supermaxi, I see several Gringo couples walking past me.  Unlike the Cuencana lady who inquired about my legs and health, these folks, who speak my native tongue, don't say a word as we walk past one another.  Not even a wave or a smile hardly.  The coldness and the standoffishness I had come to hate while living in the United States comes back to me in a flood of memories.  "God, help these people to see your love in these kind of situations when they see a friendly expat," I offer as a "breath prayer" as I continue walking past McDonald's. . . Chill 'n Grill. . . and then at the El Vergel shopping center and Supermaxi.  

Today I see a new item: grated cheese - "taco cheese" as it's called here on the label of some of them - and there's *three* different brands to choose from.  I take a look and see that there's a new brand among the two I've seen previously.  Fifty grams more in the package, and with a lower price to boot!  I pick up three of them.  (saving $1.50 or so in the process)  

Off to the meat counter.  Today there's plenty of the rolled chub packaged carne molida hamburger which is just 15 per cent grasa - fat - and is just $2.99 a kilogram, according to the package.  I pick up two, and I'm out about $11 for the both of them.  Later on, I'll see at Coral a smaller clear plastic sealed container of hamburger for about the same price as the large rolled chub of hamburger I picked up at Supermaxi.  The size difference is astounding to one who pays close attention, and I  do.  

Rounding out the purchases, I find Avena en Hojuelas - rolled oats - in the Supermaxi store brand in the one kilogram size.  One buck!  Can't go wrong here!  Didn't know they even offered the item here. . . found out about it by reading the Gringo Post.  Quaker is also available, but at double or more the price of the national brands.  FYI.  A couple of envelopes of soup (national brand stuff) at a buck apiece, and I'm ready for checkout.  I see Campbell's soup is back on the shelf after disappearing in the midst of Ecuador's financial cutbacks during 2015 (we saw plenty of Campbell's varieties in our 2014 visit).  Some cream of mushroom, chicken noodle, and tomato, and a couple of others.  Prices are quadruple what I remember them being in the USA, however.  FYI.  

I greet the cajera and ask if the meat is still at the ten percent discount.  She responds in the affirmative, and my small purchase is completed.  I haven't spoken a word of English the whole time this visit.  This Supermaxi location is often frequented by Gringos - extranjeros - and as I get my bags I notice a retired older gentleman speaking in English in a loud enough voice to attract my attention.  He's talking with another person, perhaps an employee, perhaps a friend he's with. . . nevertheless, he's likely one of the number here who don't use Spanish or don't even try (whether they can learn or choose not to is something I cannot say).  I remember the importance of assimilating into the local culture as I walk back to my bus stop, which to catch on the return trip is past the delightfully tranquilo Parque de la Madre with its Planetario (Planetarium), jogging paths, workout areas, park benches, and overall green spaces.  Great place to meet and talk with all kinds of people, and I have done so here.  Not today.  Nothing clicks.  I move on to my bus stop.  

I return home again, unload my second batch of groceries, and in due time, venture out for the big shopping at Coral at Mall del Rio.  

Getting on the bus, I talk to a fellow Gringa (blonde, obviously a foreigner in appearance) a bit.  I trotted out my usual "Buenos tardes" and seeing that she didn't respond to that, followed up with, "Good afternoon," which elicited the same back to me.  My fellow expats can be so private and guarded, and this lady was no exception.  She got off in an area that obviously was residential, and I wondered how she was getting along with perhaps little to no Spanish in a city full of Spanish speakers.  

Later in that same bus ride, a Cuencano helped an abuela - grandmother - get off the bus.  Her back was bent and her hair gray, and she had several baskets that needed to get offloaded with her.  A younger man helped her get out the front door as the driver patiently waited.  So very kind of him to do that, and exemplifies the generosity of spirit and respect of one's elders that is part of the culture of Ecuador and Latin America.  I thanked him as he got off the bus with me at Mall del Rio, and he was appreciative of that.  As I walked down the steps, here came a young Cuencana who offered me her hand to make the large leap from the last step of the bus to the ground, away from the curb a good bit.  I was glad to get the help, and she obliged.  

We talked as we walked to the mall entrance, and I found out she did speak some English, but not fluently by any means.  I let her know it wasn't a problem. . . I'm bilingual (conversationally) and she let out a sigh of relief.  She could talk to me, and appreciate a discussion with a foreigner like me that was appreciative of her country and its ways.  I asked for her name, and she replied, "Rebecca," with a distinctly Spanish language pronounciation.  She enjoyed the conversation as we entered the mall, and we said our goodbyes.  

One thing about Coral. . . you don't know what the price is until you reach the checkout stands.  The price marked on the shelf doesn't always agree with the price that is read on the bar code scanner machines located in different parts of the store, which don't always agree with what I see on the receipt (for the record).  The old saying applies. . . This is Ecuador.  Don't like it?  This is Ecuador.  You really liked that experience?  This is Ecuador!  To be fair, this likely applies to other competitors and retailers as well, but with Coral it's more obvious due to the bar code scanners being available for use by customers.  Sigh.  

I have learned to first go to the cereal aisle and check out our favorite brand for availability.  Today, good news: it's there with more to spare.  I get six, knowing the next time I come, there might not be as many (or any, depending on the day I return).  Saturdays and Sundays are the worst for restocking high demand items like this granola we like that has a price a dollar give or take less than Supermaxi.  Every other granola cereal costs a dollar or more than this brand.  Not cheap compared to US prices we used to enjoy, but a bargain compared to the competition.  

I check out the apples in the produce section.  I decide to ask, since the price isn't marked on the sign, what the fuji apples cost.  "$2.25 uno kiligramo," the produce clerk shoots back after checking on her scale/computer.  Best price on apples out of all the other varieties. . . so I get this kind today.  Happy to get the bargain.  

The way it works in Ecuador, it's not how efficient you work, it's that you are occupied with work despite being perhaps not nearly as efficient as you might encounter in North America, which by comparison is ruthlessly efficient.  So here in Coral, one sees for example two female chica employees assembling an end cap of kitchen cookware.  One hands the item to the other, and the other pegs it into the wall/endcap display.  Talking and chatting continuously as they do so. . . in the United States, it would be a dismissable offense talking that way and doing work together so inefficiently.  Remember, This is Ecuador.  As you can see, even for employees, it's the Tranquil Life.  

After checkout, I get - with the kind assistance of my bagger lady - a taxi to get home with my purchases. I regale the chofer with the advantages of living in Cuenca that might not be so well known to him - the four rivers with running water, the periodic, regular rain (which just happened this afternoon, still raining as we head to my building), clean and orderly streets and public buildings, safety to the point it's safe to walk the streets - even in the evenings, great schools and universities, excellent medical infrastructure with doctors and hospitals in abundance, and - of course - a relatively low cost of living vis a vis other locations in South America.  He agrees and smiles - even laughs - at my retelling the virtues of his city.  This is not what the average taxi driver or even citizen hears on a regular basis, by the way, according to what I hear.  It's nice to tell the positives of the place you have decided to live at, and it sure beats complaining, which I'm sure people like my taxi driver receives on an all too regular basis. 

Yes. . . we're living the tranquilo life here in Cuenca.  Glad to do so, too!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Carnival Holiday recap 2016

I'm reminded by one of our faithful friends from the States to give an update on Carnival, which is akin to Mardi Gras in the United States.  Carnival is much better known and more of an international tourist type holiday in Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro but not so much in Ecuador as far as we know.  

Here in Cuenca, Carnival is an Ecuadorian national holiday.  A lot of people start leaving Cuenca for the coast and the beaches on the Friday before the official holiday starts (this year it was February 8th and 9th, the 9th being "Fat Tuesday" as Rio would know and call it, as well as New Orleans in the US).  Saturday can also be a big travel day to the coast, especially in the morning.  As you can tell, this leaves anywhere from two to five days free for families to party and enjoy the fiestas.  The days off are made up by working the next two successive Saturdays, as we found out last year from our law firm, which was open those days (not normally open on Saturdays. . . these two days are the "make up" days to compensate businesses for the time off from work earlier in Carnival).  

The people who visit the coast often end up in or near Salinas, which is the coastal town past Guayaquil, the port city on the Guayas River at its terminus in the Pacific Ocean.  I haven't yet been there, but Carolyn Anne has, and it's hot and humid there especially this time of year, when it's effectively the warmer season of the year from December to February.  We hear it gets crowded in the timeshare rentals, hotels, and lodgings there during Carnival season, and typically attracts a younger crowd.  I doubt that Salinas is where we would spend Carnival.  Cuenca suits us just fine!

An update on our friend that got sprayed with espuma - foam - on the Thursday before Carnival at the social fiesta at Parque Calderon in the El Centro of Cuenca: she is recovering well, and is able to see out of I believe one eye at present.  She will regain her sight, and the worst of it will be that she may have to undergo laser surgery for her affected eye.  That remains to be determined, however.  She is able to walk outside and go visit the doctor (Carolyn Anne went with her to that appointment).  We are grateful to God she is improving after such a nasty attack.  By the way, the foam used came from China, and is alcohol based (which makes it more of a hazard than a non alcohol based foam product).  There's Ecuadorian produced non alcohol foam for sale before Carnival, and if you gotta have espuma, we'd certainly prefer folks purchase the Ecuador produced product.  

Natives to Cuenca that have lived here much longer than us have mentioned that the city used to be a much more dangerous place for tourists and we foreigners to be in during Carnival.  "It was virtually a war zone!," opined one of our Iglesia Verbo pastors.  Tons of balloons, foam, water, ice, and probably more being tossed at warp speed to zing unsuspecting recipients, which probably included some foreigners.  They must have complained to the police, because the local police crack down on a lot of what used to be happening during Carnival season.  Public municipal fountains (not all. . . the one at Av. Solano at Av. Doce de Abril was on this year) get turned off nowadays to prevent people from loading water pistols and water balloons, for example.  Streets aren't near as wet and slick as they used to be (some sidewalks in El Centro and in the El Vergel office/retail district south of El Centro would be exceptions, currently).  

But some things haven't changed despite the police crackdown on the more risky and dangerous behavior.  "I don't know why, but when we have our festivales, we don't think," confided one of our Iglesia Verbo translator volunteers.  "It's like turning our brains off or something."  "Wouldn't it be appropriate to always consider safety in the activities surrounding Carnival?" I asked her.  "Yes, but it's not in us to do that," admitted our young adult friend.  So there you have it.  Culturally when these parties or festivales start up, the Ecuadorianos go loco totalmente and lose their minds.  Now you - and we - know!  You gotta believe we will keep this bit of knowledge and advice in mind regarding future national holidays here in Ecuador.  In but not of, as the apostle John wrote.  In the local culture, but not ensnared by it in a way that would cause us harm.  

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

These Cry Out for Wisdom

Here in Ecuador, as in anywhere else in the world, one's life is made up from the small choices we make, not the big ones.  How do I know that?  By observing my own life as well as the lives of others.  

Earlier in my life, I became acquainted with a Los Angeles Police Department officer, Jim Harpster.  One of the themes he would refer to over and over as he shared from the Scriptures of the Bible to our Men's small group that met on Saturday mornings at the church where I met and married my wife was the big consequences of small choices.  In the context of his dealing with criminals that needed to have law enforcement presence in their lives for whatever reason, he would listen, learn, and then speak on the topic of how these folks' small choices could - and often did - land them before a judge, and even jail.  "But I was minding my own business until (fill in the blank) drove by!" they exclaimed.  "I was just having a good time and then this officer came and gave me trouble!" another confided.  And so it goes. . . do folks learn from one's mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, or dare we even say it: sin.  Good question, and it pertains to me just as much as it does to you.  

Lately in Cuenca, where we live in the southern Andes Sierra of Ecuador, my wife and I have a friend who is currently recuperating at home from a rather nasty eye infection from a social gathering associated with Carnival, a national holiday here similar in some ways to Mardi Gras in the United States, that included people spraying espuma - foam - on and about others in the crowd.  You have to understand that the foam hit her eye, and has caused her pain and suffering. . . and even the possibility of becoming blind permanently.  We are praying for her and in communication for this dear one, and she has to have "lights out" at her residence for the time being as light is too much for her to deal with and she cannot effectively see as she used to.  Her neighbor is helping her with daily tasks for the interim, by the way.  

Some thoughts I have discussed with Carolyn Anne about this episode include "How did she get involved in going to the event where the foam was sprayed?"  "Why did she have to go with her friends to the event?  Couldn't she respectfully have declined?"  And. . . "Is the crowd always right in what they do and say?"  Here in Cuenca, in a foreign city in a foreign country with folkways and customs we Norteamericanos are not as familiar with, it pays to have a healthy detached objective view of the inherent risks and rewards of such activities, fun that they may be for others involved.  At our age and health condition, I have determined for at least myself that this kind of event is not appropriate for us to attend.  Our friend's current condition is a very telling reminder why.  

As I was walking the other day to our usual farmacia to get some medications, I was nearly hit with a water balloon - it grazed my leg - thrown from someone from an upstairs balcony in El Centro (the historic downtown area of Cuenca).  Water hoses with running water were also in evidence down another El Centro street, with a restaurant family member about to hose down his little brother.  I wisely watched where he aimed the hose (not at me, thankfully).  I also was ready to cross the street if this young man was about to try to hose me.  Great fun for lots of the natives, but they know better than to involve los extranjeros (us foreigners).  At another location in town outside of El Centro, I saw another shop owner getting ready to pour a bucket of ice and use a water hose on what looked like his daughter, who was already soaking wet.  

Now I like fun and a good time as much or more than anyone else, but given our age and condition it's wise for us not to be too terribly involved in crowds of natives when they are armed and ready with foam, confetti, buckets of ice, and water hoses.  Best to stay away until the Carnival period ends. One more day until normalcy returns.  My two cents fwiw.  

Turning the page, but keeping the same theme. . . 

The Gringos, or foreign typically native English speaking expats largely from North America here in Cuenca are a motley lot.  It's rare for all of them to agree on anything in a discussion, and just like back home in the States, there can be personal attacks, name calling, demeaning comments, and the like. Just because they move here doesn't cause them to act any differently. . . one more proof of fallen human nature.  

We're glad we have decided to not be solely involved with the Gringo expat folks exclusively.  We are glad to be a part, and be social, and share and encourage where that's possible, but not every expat is like us that way.  

We're here to assimilate as much as possible with the Cuencanos/as as well as enjoy the friendships of the Gringos/as amongst us.  We have several friendships especially through our Verbo church with the locals, and we're thankful to God for knowing them and loving them.  In that way we are able to learn the language and share our lives with them.  They by and large are very open to that, and are gracious people.  

Many of the expats here, on the other hand, do not get involved with the locals, or attempt to learn their language, their customs, or their ways.  It's what's been termed by others who arrived here long before us as the "Expat Bubble."  A world cut off from the rest of the population of Cuenca, largely located in what's been termed as "Gringolandia," the area of Cuenca on the west side that has many high rise condo buildings on or near Av. Ordon~ez Lasso.  Here's a photo that exemplifies the "brick canyon" that is Ordon~ez Lasso and Gringolandia:  

In that "Expat Bubble" of living, shopping, dining, and conversing in Gringolandia, the expats largely encounter those who speak English.  They see and hear little to no Spanish at all.  But they also miss out on living in the rest of what makes up Cuenca, probably 98 per cent of the city.  Quite a sheltered existence living one's life in Latin America with no regular connection to locals or those who know the culture and speak the local language.  The locals pick up on that, too, and they are amazed these folks would keep themselves sequestered from them.  Frankly the locals pity them.  

There's several community forums and English language Internet sites that expats frequent, among them the Gringo Post, perhaps the oldest and certainly the most read English language forum for expats living in Cuenca and Ecuador.  Sometimes the discussions can continue without end, for various and sundry reasons.  Some of this could be due to a lack of assimilation within the greater Cuenca community, but some of it is surely due to strongly held beliefs that just won't budge.  Here's a current one that just won't quit as of now:

Rather than write my response to that incredibly long conversation, I'd prefer to give what are the enduringly wise words from the Scriptures, to wit:

"A person gives joy in giving an apt reply - and how good is a timely word!" (Proverbs 15:23)

"Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues."  (Proverbs 10:19)

"Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious, but fools are consumed by their own lips."  (Ecclesiastes 10:12)

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."  (Ephesians 4:29)

"Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you."  (Matthew 7:6)

"Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." (2 Timothy 2:23)

Also, read what another local Cuenca expat, Susan Burke March, wrote on this topic.  Exquisitely well written piece, if I may say so myself.