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.