Monday, July 7, 2014

Neighborhood Fiesta

The city of Cuenca sponsors free Zumba classes at parks all over town, including one near our building that is rocking from 8 to 9 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evening. We've not participated but most definitely hear the music and enthusiastic instructor urging on sometimes as many as 100 folks from the neighborhood.

So it was a bit odd this past Friday that the music started cranking at 9, but we thought maybe the schedule had changed. Then it kept going--and going--and still going when we went to bed. I learned the next morning that we were celebrating the annual fiesta for our El Vergel barrio (neighborhood).

All weekend. Sigh-----

Sure enough, Saturday night we were living in Party Central once again. I woke up to go to the bathroom at 1:30 and the music was still blaring, so maybe it stopped at 2? Who knows?

Yesterday the fiesta got started in the early afternoon and I at last wandered over to check it out. Our little park was packed with revelers and vendors. Here are some photos to give you an idea of what the celebration looked like.








Yes, somehow she's sleeping through all the racket.



And I'm happy to report that the party finally shut down at 9 last night.



Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Hearts of Gold

Are you old enough to remember the “Paul is dead” hysteria during the autumn of 1969? As a card-carrying Beatlemaniac I was devastated by rumors that swirled in the media for months.

Paul had supposedly died in a car crash two years earlier and been replaced with a lookalike. New “clues” to substantiate the event continually surfaced. By playing Revolution 9 backwards one heard the phrase “turn me on, dead man”—on Strawberry Fields Forever John supposedly said “I bury Paul” (later found to be “cranberry sauce”)—the cover of Abbey Road symbolized a funeral procession. A Life magazine interview with Paul and Linda McCartney published in November 1969 finally quelled the madness.

The memory of this story came back to me because of recent chatter around town about Hearts of Gold, a charitable foundation in Cuenca. One of the founders is also the majority owner of GringoTree, our city’s popular online community bulletin board, as well as a principal in two gold mining projects in Ecuador.

The scuttlebutt has been vague but potentially damning. Money donated to the charity is “maybe” being diverted for personal use—“perhaps” there is a conflict of interest—something “funny” is going on------.

As a supporter of Hearts of Gold, a reader of GringoTree, and with a financial interest in the other venture, these rumors were personally disturbing. Rather than rely on idle gossip, I decided to go straight to the source. All three enterprises share the same office space, so I walked in unannounced and stated the intention of my visit.

What I found was both shocking and disappointing.

The genesis for the Hearts of Gold Foundation was in 2010, when the business owned by a Canadian expat couple sponsored a “Christmas Gold for Children” program that raised money for three orphanages during the holiday season. The outpouring of support encouraged them to formalize their efforts into Hearts of Gold.

The non-profit’s mission is specifically NOT to bring Gringo solutions to Ecuadorian problems. Instead, Hearts of Gold partners with existing local non-profit organizations having in depth knowledge of the community’s needs. Each partner shares the vision of breaking the cycle of poverty and creating sustainable solutions by providing tools and resources in the areas of education and health.

I was amazed at the extent of the organization’s reach. Here are just a few highlights of who is being helped:

• A local orphanage that houses 23 children, 7 of whom have physical or mental disabilities
• A home in downtown Cuenca that provides a safe refuge for women and young girls who come from abusive environments
• An organization near Paute that offers full lunches and medical care to indigent children
• A pre- and after-school program in a rural community outside of Cuenca

In addition to individual donations, Hearts of Gold hosts large events like an annual Christmas Gala, Silent Auctions, and this Saturday the 1st Annual Bar-B-Que Barn Dance. They also have drop off locations around Cuenca for clothing and other non-perishable items that are made into gift baskets and handed out to underprivileged families during Christmas.

This was a huge surprise: the generosity of corporate sponsors covers the entire costs of overhead and administration, so 100% of all donations goes directly to partner organizations and families.

Hearts of Gold’s success, along with plans to eventually become a national organization, led to a decision in 2013 to be recognized as a legal foundation. Massive amounts of paperwork later, the transition was completed and a Board of Directors comprised of outside locals and expats was elected. The Foundation is accountable to five different government agencies for every penny that is received and spent.

So, yes, I was shocked. Shocked to learn how much good Hearts of Gold is doing throughout the Azuay province. Shocked to discover how squeaky clean their balance sheet is required to be.

And disappointed to consider how much damage some of the mean-spirited inaccuracies I had heard might have caused.

Paul McCartney is alive and well. He’s currently on a worldwide tour and recently rocked the house in Quito. Hearts of Gold is also kicking up its heels. At this Saturday’s Barn Dance over 300 supporters will enjoy the food and festivities.

But since uncovering the “shocking” truth about this foundation, I’m left to wonder if without all the unsubstantiated rumors that have been flying around attendance would be even higher.

Those who choose for personal reasons not to support Hearts of Gold charitable activities have my utmost respect. Lots of folks are active in other worthwhile organizations, and some people just aren’t moved to participate in anything of this nature.

Keeping it real, who hasn’t engaged in gossip at one time or another? It’s hard not to sometimes pass along juicy tidbits that come our way. The rub comes when blatantly false information, like a fish story, grows each time it is retold and becomes hurtful.

I have been blessed with meeting hundreds of wonderful locals and expats during my four years in Cuenca. I can’t name a single one that I would label as “evil.” I know that people are basically good and would never intentionally bring harm to others.

But sometimes our actions can bring unintended consequences. I would be personally devastated far beyond those “Paul is dead” rumors if I discovered that my idle remarks had kept a child from getting proper medical care or eating a nutritious lunch, or a battered woman from having nowhere to go.

Yet that is exactly what has happened to anyone who has chosen to badmouth Hearts of Gold without knowing the facts that I have shared. Or worse, has passed along misinformation to others. Or worst of all, has failed to support this worthwhile foundation simply based on this misinformation.

I’m discouraging the dissemination of second, third, and fourth hand comments, so don’t take my word for anything I’ve said here about Hearts of Gold. Go to their offices just like I did and find out the truth for yourself if this knowledge is important to you. Everyone there was extremely kind and helpful to me, my misgivings were answered, and I left feeling proud to be involved.

It is said that “idle time is the devil’s workshop,” and sharing unconfirmed gossip certainly falls into this category. Seeking to speak the truth and resisting the temptation to engage in potentially harmful hearsay is a cause worthy of everyone’s participation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ecuadorian Health Care

Cynthia and I have been paying into Ecuador's Social Security health care system for over two years. Locals adamantly warned us that the care is substandard and advised that they would never use it, but then again these are the same people who say how unsafe the buses are when they never actually ride one themselves.

Since the cost is so low (less than $100/month for both of us), we had always regarded our monthly investment as insurance against unforeseen health catastrophes. But when our primary care physician, in whom we have the utmost trust, became part of the system we decided to explore the possibility of using it for our ongoing care.

I've been bothered by a condition known as Dupuytren's contracture for over ten years. A thickening in the fascia of the hand causes a finger, normally the pinkie or ring finger, to bend inward toward the palm. Left untreated the finger can eventually curve to the degree of making a permanent fist.

That wasn't an acceptable outcome, so our doctor referred me to a specialist at the Social Security hospital. He examined my hand and confirmed that corrective surgery was needed. Another warning we'd received was that long delays for treatment were common, so I had low expectations when I asked when he could do it. "I'm going to the States tomorrow night," he said. "Can you be here at 6:30 in the morning?"

"Uh----sure."

I left his office and a few minutes later was having blood drawn for pre-op testing. After that I went straight in for an EKG. Finally I met briefly with the anesthesiologist. All within an hour--so much for delays!

The doctor said I would be held overnight for observation and pain management. What? This procedure in the States would be performed in an outpatient clinic and you would be sent straight home with some pills. I haven't been in a hospital since I was born, but what the heck---OK.

Cynthia and I showed up bright and early the next morning. After a brief wait I changed into one of those ultra-flattering hospital gowns (and a shower cap thingy for my "hair"), hopped on a gurney, and off I went. No paperwork--everything was already logged into the system.

A couple of hours later I left recovery and was taken to my bed. Most of the rooms hold three patients, and I was happy to be assigned a "window bed" with a beautiful view of the mountains that surround Cuenca. Per doctor's orders I hadn't eaten since 10 the previous night, and I'm a guy that needs to eat something about 6 times a day. I'd already devoured a banana Cynthia brought along and was starving when the lunch cart came around.

Sorry--no food for you, Senor Staton. Possible nausea from the anesthesia. The hell you say. Good thing I had Cynthia pack other snacks just in case. I proceeded to dine on cookies, an apple, and Cheetos the rest of the afternoon.

My overnight was uneventful. They had me on an IV drip so I was pretty groggy, and the nurses were attentive but not coming around bugging you all the time.

After picking up some free medication at the pharmacy I went home the next morning. Again, zero paperwork. Just goodbye, thanks for taking good care of me. Two weeks later I went back to the doctor and had my stitches removed. Now I'm the proud owner of ten perfectly straight fingers, and the scar is so clean that it will look like just another line on my hand when the redness subsides (thinking about bamboozling a palm reader when that happens).

I can't recommend our health care system here highly enough. The care I received was top notch. For sure the speed of my treatment was an anomaly. Cynthia yesterday made an appointment with an ophthalmologist-- for mid-September (but this too is an exception--there are only two of these specialists working for Social Security in Cuenca). If you can be a patient patient, you'll be rewarded with caring practitioners and great results.



Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Baby, I Can Drive Your Car

Well, I did it. I finally got my Ecuadorian driver's license.


I mentioned in an earlier post that I had been to driving school here. My US license has expired--we're going back to the States next month--and I needed to be legal.

After waiting several weeks I received notification that my paperwork had come back from Quito so I went to the school to pick up my packet of info. The good folks there wanted to set up an appointment immediately to take my exam (it happens the next day) but I declined because I hadn't even studied yet.

All 103 possible multiple choice questions (in Spanish) are published online, so I went through the whole list once to refresh my memory. Twenty are included on the test--ten verbal and ten road signs. You can also take as many practice tests as you need online. Each time a different set of questions appears, but I quickly noticed that there was a lot of duplication. You are always asked about driving on the right, passing on the left, the colors of a traffic light, and several others.

The signs are a breeze. You don't even need to know Spanish to understand what a person on a bicycle with a diagonal line through it means. After several run-through's of the practice test convinced me I couldn't miss more than the four wrong answers allowed, I set up my appointment on the website and showed up the following morning.

When you live in Ecuador awhile you come to understand that anything involving paperwork rarely goes smoothly the first time. This time proved to be no exception. I waited in line for my turn, took a quick vision test, then sat down with one of the processors when my number came up. She went through all of my documents and discovered that the administrator of the driving school had failed to sign my diploma.

Sigh--no test for me today.

Four years ago I would have been highly upset about this. I'd gotten all geared up mentally and ridden clear across town to take the test. Now I just got up and said, "OK, see you tomorrow."

The following morning I walked to the school, got the document signed, took a taxi back to the transit building, stood in line again, received a number, got processed, and sat down at a computer. I got the first 19 right and missed the last one on purpose just for the hell of it. Ten minutes later I walked out with license in hand.

Hooray!

To reiterate, we love our pedestrian lifestyle and have zero plans to own a car in Cuenca. I hope to never even drive someone else's vehicle here. But the US suburbs beckon and now I'm ready.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Birthday Celebration

My beloved wife Cynthia's birthday was Saturday and I wanted to do something special for her. A card, flowers, and box of chocolates wouldn't cut it (although she got those too), so I made reservations at Noe, a new sushi restaurant that we had heard so much about.

With seven locations in Quito and four in Guayaquil, Noe is no stranger in Ecuador's largest cities, but a restaurant like this brings a whole new level of dining to little Cuenca.


For starters, the space itself is dramatically designed with a contemporary feel totally different from the traditional interiors usually found in other restaurants here.



Service was impeccable throughout the evening. Our champagne glasses were always refreshed before they were empty,


and anything we needed was anticipated before we could request it. Impressive!

The menu is literally a glossy magazine (with BMW and other high end ads) offering an overwhelming number of choices. Having been forewarned of this fact and that it's totally in Spanish, we studied the selections--in English--online and pretty much knew what we wanted upon arrival. Doing so allowed us to relax and enjoy the evening without over-ordering or being flustered and perhaps disappointed with what came to the table.

So what about the food? Honestly, it was outstanding. We shared a cold appetizer of grilled shrimp and vegetables in Oriental rice pancakes.


I chose a steak and langostino teppanyaki dish


while Cynthia enjoyed two half rolls--one with crispy salmon and the other filled with shrimp and avocado and flambeed table-side with sake.


The staff brought out a complimentary tiramisu for Cynthia and sang a heartfelt "Happy Birthday" in their best English. So sweet.

I highly recommend Noe for a superb dining experience.

PS. Happy Birthday to my forever girlfriend.







Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kiva

Several years ago my daughter surprised me with a Christmas gift that has become one of the most meaningful I have ever received--a gift card to Kiva. Kiva? It is likely you've never heard of this organization. I was curious when I opened the envelope because at the time neither had I.

Founded in 2005, Kiva is "a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty." The way it works is simple. You can loan as little as $25 to any of hundreds of people around the planet running tiny businesses to support their families. Right now I'm helping Eva in the Philippines and Halima in Pakistan. Both are mothers of three children and needed more inventory for their general stores. Eva someday wants to send her kids to college.

Every time repayment in my lending "bucket" reaches the $25 mark (you are notified by email each time a payment is made) I go to the Kiva website and look for someone else to assist. At this moment there are 3779 lending opportunities available, sorted six different ways to help your decision. You can also focus on a particular country if you wish. I particularly enjoy finding a situation where my loan gets a person to 100% funding.

I'm one of 1,175,451 individuals who has provided micro-financing (total loans, which can be funded by multiple lenders, are often only $100 to $200) of $565,201,650 to aspiring entrepreneurs in 75 countries. These might seem like high risk loans, but amazingly the repayment rate over the entire nine years of Kiva's existence is 98.86%.

Why? Every penny of your money goes to folks with no access to traditional banking systems who are anxious to create opportunity for themselves and others. Plain and simple, the gratitude for receiving assistance in their effort drives them to repay this kindness no matter what.

Anything we can do for the less fortunate among us is admirable. As a former small business owner this particular concept speaks to my heart. I've thus far assisted individuals and groups in seven countries and look forward to many more. Kiva calls its program "loans that change lives" and my personal involvement has been a special blessing.

I encourage you to put as little as $25 to work lending a helping hand. Go to Kiva's website and find someone's personal story that speaks to you. I guarantee you'll be glad you did.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Power of Intention

I befriended the administrator of the driving school while I was there attending classes. Having lived in Atlanta and Houston she speaks perfect English, so I sometimes stayed after class to chat.

We've both enjoyed long marriages (she & her husband 25 years, Cynthia & I approaching 43) and were talking about the "secrets" of our successful relationships. I told her that from the beginning my bride and I had intended for our marriage to work at the highest level, and asked her if she had ever read Wayne Dyer's "The Power of Intention." She had not, so I immediately decided to give a copy to her as a token of appreciation for her kindness.

At Cuenca's largest bookstore the next day I learned that they only had a copy at their branch in Guayaquil that could arrive in several days. I was hot to trot to make this happen and decided to search elsewhere. Two days and three bookstores later I had still come up empty, so I returned to my original location only to discover the store was closed for a holiday.

Bummer!

On the way home I spied a tiny bookstore I've probably walked past 50 times and never noticed. It was open so I walked in and asked the clerk if the book in stock. She unlocked a window and handed me her only copy. My copy.

Hooray!

Cynthia wrapped the book for me and I went over to the driving school to present my present (unintended wordplay). My new friend was extremely appreciative--don't think driving school students often drop by with gifts. When I asked why she wasn't opening it she said, "Because I already know what it is--"The Power of Intention," right? Is it in English or Spanish?"

Was stumbling upon perhaps the city's only copy of that book in an obscure store a matter of luck? Or coincidence? My life experience says, "No." To me it is magical that the power of intention came into play with a book having the same name.