Saturday, February 11, 2017

How Many Ecuadorians Does It Take----

Are you old enough to remember the "joke" about a certain European nationality changing a light bulb? (Answer--3. One to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder). This post isn't about ethnic insensitivity or making fun of another culture. A funny incident happened last week that I simply want to pass along to readers curious about what life is really like here in Ecuador.

Thursday is the day our housekeeper cleans the apartment. She was already here so we were surprised to hear a knock at the door. Lo and behold it was our landlord and another guy. He explained that they were here to take care of some problems we've been having with some of our light fixtures.

Backing up, these problems have been going on for months. But none were like ruining our quality of life or anything, so while we had made him aware of them we hadn't been applying pressure to get them fixed. But on this particular day for some unknown reason here they were bright and early at our front door so giddyup!

The gentleman accompanying our landlord is what is known as a "maestro." In our world we might think of a maestro as the person conducting an orchestra or at least a master of his trade. We used to think that about people who showed up to do work here. Just as we have learned over the years that maƱana doesn't mean "tomorrow" but instead "not now," we've figured out that maestro indeed means "the person who shows up."

Clue #1--after examining the lights that won't come on in the ventilation hood over our stove, he asks me if I have a screwdriver. What "maestro" shows up without any tools?

Clue #2--he inquires if I have a ladder. See previous question.

While "handyman" will never be part of my resume I do have both of the required items. Plus a hammer and pliers should they be needed later.

The deliberations about these two little bulbs goes on and on. I go into the kitchen at one point and there's a third guy who appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as mysteriously. I didn't ask. Eventually Cynthia lies down on the couch and I assume a similar horizontal position in the bed. Our maid keeps cleaning.

At some point our landlord comes into the bedroom to inform me that they have to take the kitchen fixtures to a workshop for testing. He says they may have to jerry rig a separate switch to solve the problem. I ask him if it will be ugly. He says, "Maybe," another word that we've learned that in this context really means "Yes." I tell him ugly is not acceptable. He seems surprised that his solution is vetoed.

But while we're in the area, what about the lights that don't work in the master bathroom? The ones over Cynthia's sink and the accent light over a painting? The maestro replaces a socket and gets the accent light back on again. Hooray! Then he replaces one of the two bulbs over the sink with a light so bright that sunglasses are required. He is pleased that it works. I ask him to take it out and find something else.

All of this has been going on for hours and the two of them finally leave with the dismantled kitchen lights and wiring. They say they will be back "mas tarde en la tarde" (later in the afternoon). Translation--they ain't coming back today.

Sure enough, the next morning our amigos are knocking on the door. They've added a separate switch to the lights that dangles from the back of the hood. Not great, but some strategically placed masking tape holds it in place without looking too weird. For some reason one of the new bulbs doesn't work so they have to remove the one from the accent fixture in the bathroom that just became functional yesterday.


So here's where we stand a week later: the lights in the kitchen work--the lights in the bathroom still don't work. And it may be months before they do. We'll just have to wait for the next knock on the door.

In Ecuador, that's solid progress.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Oh, The Times They Are A'Changin'

Back in the 60's we had all sorts of protests going--civil rights and the anti-war movements especially, as well as the beginnings of those for women and gays. I was a college student during those heady times, and while I had long hair (believe it!) and wore the requisite hippie attire I admit I wasn't a card-carrying member of the "revolution." My main concern was not going to that damn jungle, shooting at people I didn't know, and most importantly not having them shoot at me! Fortunately I drew a super high lottery number that kept me out of the fray.

Thinking back on it all I'm struck by how influential my brothers and sisters have been in altering society during my lifetime. We were vigorously rebelling against the Establishment, and our generation succeeded not only in helping bring to an end the Viet Nam war but advancing all of the other causes we were fighting for.

But in the process of creating an ever more liberal, globalistic world an unforeseen thing happened--the anti-Establishment folks became the Establishment.

Now out of nowhere Donald Trump of all people--a billionaire businessman with zero political experience and an undeniable member of the Establishment--shocks everyone by running a populist, anti-Establishment campaign that propels him into the White House. What?!?!?

So in this suddenly topsy turvy world in which we find ourselves, the proponents of the very same ideology that once railed against the Establishment have once again hit the streets and social media protesting, only this time they're fighting for the Establishment and the policies they've worked so long and hard to implement.

Who can blame them? Few anticipated this unlikely turn of events, so no Plan B was even considered.

In reference to my previous post about getting older, it's fun to be on the planet long enough to observe these cyclical ebbs and flows. I recently pointed out to a young person filled with fear about the election that back in the 50's America got caught up in an emotional frenzy about nuclear annihilation from the Russians. We kids had air raid drills at school where we got under our desks, and people actually built bomb shelters in their back yards.

Guess what--we're still here.

Isn't it great to be citizens of a country where you can take a stand, be committed to a cause, and peacefully protest when things aren't going your way? Maybe it's time for everybody to take a breath, take a chill pill, and let life unfold. It doesn't always turn out as expected, but based on my experience in the long run we'll be just fine.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Birthday Math

I'm 68 today and it's a pretty weird place to be. There's no denying my age, but whatever fleeting notion I had when I was younger of this stage of life is not playing out as expected.

From earliest childhood memories my grandparents always seemed old even though in reality they were in their early 50's. Pull out photo albums from back then--people 60 and beyond in age did look old and from an actuarial standpoint were old.

Yet here I am with absolutely nothing seriously wrong with me that I'm aware of, at around my high school weight and arguably in the best shape of my life. I don't feel my age; perhaps I'm kidding myself when I think I don't look my age; and Cynthia would vouch for the fact that I often don't act my age.

All of this is a good thing because we've always intended to reach triple digits--that is, at least 100 years old. I was doing the math and realized that I barely reached the two thirds mark of my goal last year. Thinking back that means I'll live as much more as since I was in my early 30's, which is astounding. Our kids were just starting school, our business was flourishing, and I somehow had the energy to be up on a ladder until midnight working on the home we were renovating near downtown Atlanta. It all seems an eternity ago.

Then I thought, "That's not good enough. I want to see Cynthia be 100 too." OK, so now the goal is 104.

And then I thought, "It would suck for her to reach 100 and then I just keel over. We need a little time to celebrate both reaching our milestone, so I'll shoot for 105."

Then I thought, "If I live to 105 we'll celebrate our 84th anniversary. That's not a memorable number." 85 years of marriage and 106 years of age it is then!

Now I'm thinking, "H-m-m-m, but we dated four years before we got married. 89 years together--that somehow feels so incomplete. I know---I'll go for 118! That means we'll have been together 100 years! What a story!!"

I went to tell Cynthia all of this and she was pretty excited too. In fact she yelled in a loud voice:


Thursday, January 19, 2017

Back in Cuenca!

After we arrived home Tuesday evening and lugged all the maximum weight luggage and stuffed carry on's up four flights of stairs, we were too pooped to do much except a little unpacking. Of course after 2 1/2 months away there was no food in the house, but we did have duty-free alcohol and yummy nuts brought back from the States, so after cocktails and snacks we hit the sack early.

Yesterday our "big event" was going to the Supermaxi to replenish our refrigerator and cupboard. It is a tradition for us to eat an Ecuadorian lunch at the same restaurant the day after a trip home to symbolize our return. The owner Juan knows this and gave us a big welcoming hug when we walked in the door.

I'm not sure why we made a shopping list because we basically needed everything. Wednesday is 10% off day on produce so we saved a little money, but our bill was still over $200. The checkout clerk was probably wondering how two old gringos could possibly need so many bags of food. If the bag boys at Supermaxi had any training, they must have been specifically told to pack bags as heavy as possible. The big bag of oranges and the big bag of potatoes? In the same bag. All the heavy bottles? In the same bag. And I've got to carry all this stuff up those same stairs.

For any of you planning to visit Cuenca, let me emphasize that altitude adjustment is real. This wasn't that much of a outing but we were exhausted and headed straight for a nap after everything was unpacked. Now all of this food is in the house but neither of us was up for cooking or even making a salad so we ate ham sandwiches and went to bed early again.

Today I was ready to rumble and planned an aggressive agenda. First stop--the ATM for cash. My card doesn't work. I go inside and it's determined that the chip isn't readable. I get a new card on the spot, complete the transaction, and am on my way to the gym.

After a good workout I walk into town to see what movies are available at my favorite video store. We managed to see a few films in the U.S. but are way behind on our annual quest to see all the nominated movies. $12.50 later I walk out with ten new ones to watch. Sweet!

My final stop is Tutto Freddo, a wonderful ice cream store where I pick up a container of deliciousness for the freezer. On the walk home I notice three things: 1) I'm tired, 2) I'm hungry, and 3) it's damned hot (summer here, you know). Ignoring #1 in favor of the other two I pick up the pace for the remainder of my journey.

This time I have multiple reasons to be out of gas so I'm off for yet another nap. Oh, let me share a quick story. When I was blogging quite frequently it wasn't unusual for a stranger to approach me around town and say, "Excuse me, are you Edd?" or "Hey, are you Eddsaid?" Yesterday on an aisle in Supermaxi I passed a woman I didn't know. There was eye contact and that familiar look of recognition. Sure enough, she said, "Excuse me------"

"-----are you Sparky?"


I replied that until that moment I had never been called Sparky in my entire life. So my question to you is, should I start calling this blog "sparkyspoke?"

Lemme know.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Back in Ecuador!

A l-o-n-g family visit to the U.S. has come to a close, and I'm thrilled to report that after months of chemotherapy and recent surgery our daughter Adrian is now 100% cancer-free!!. What a fantastic way for all of us to start 2017!

Cynthia and I are spending a couple of days with dear friends outside of Quito before returning to Cuenca. We left snow in New Jersey yesterday and awoke this morning to beautiful blue skies and warm temps. After yoga, a visit to the pool, and a nap, we're soon off to a neighborhood party. Quite a change from our life the past couple of months.

We love our kids and grandchildren more than words can express. We also enjoy all the dining, shopping, and entertainment opportunities in the United States, but we miss Cuenca very much and look forward to being home.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “OK, so you’re happy to be leaving all that behind to return to Ecuador? Why??” Some of the reasons may surprise you.

1. I can’t wait to put on sunscreen again. The high temperature in New Jersey last weekend was 26 and the low 13. Sure, the sun is often out but when you’re dodging the cold by hustling from the house to the car, then from the car to wherever you’re going, who needs sunscreen?

It’s summer in Cuenca now and the weather, like here, is glorious. But as opposed to the extreme seasonality in most of the States, we enjoy high’s in the 70’s and low’s in the 50’s year round. That equatorial sun is intense, so hooray—let’s celebrate needing to break out the Coppertone!

2. I detest the “fall back” part of Daylight Savings Time. At this time of year it’s dark in NJ at like 4:30 PM, and the sun is barely making a dent in the darkness at 7 AM. I find it totally disorienting (and a bit sad) to be yawning and looking at my watch during Jeopardy.

Another shout out for living on the equator—the sun rises and sets at 6ish every single day. And because of that consistency the time stays the same all year too.

3. I’m sort of looking forward to less choice. Yes, I know what I said earlier about all the opportunities. But it gets to be somewhat overwhelming. When “mustard” is on the shopping list back home I go to the Supermaxi and buy---mustard. In the States there are 30 different kinds. I thought I just wanted plain old mustard, but, wow, that Ass Kickin’ stone ground jar looks like fun. Or what about the whole grain one with Irish whiskey? Ginger wasabi? Who knew?? Fifteen minutes later I’m still standing there staring like Beavis and Butthead.

4. I can’t WAIT to stop driving!! One of my fondest financial memories was exchanging the keys to Cynthia’s car for a check that paid for our possessions to be shipped to Ecuador. I’ve driven more in the past two months than I have in the last seven years, and I yearn to get back to walking almost everywhere in Cuenca. “Pedestrian lifestyle” wasn’t on our wish list of desirable features when we first started thinking about moving abroad, but it always will be now. Walking rocks!

5. I miss my friends. We dearly love our family but over the last 6+ years in Cuenca we’ve become part of a “family” of friends with whom deep relationships have been built. This has been our biggest and happiest surprise of expat life.

In a couple of days we’ll be back experiencing all the things we’ve missed about our hometown. Of course when it’s time to return to the States we’ll be happy to see our family and support our daughter's continuing recovery but for now, as the lyrics of the John Denver song say, “Hey, it’s good to be back home again!”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Tangling with Technology

Ecuador isn't much of a high tech country. Sure, we've got WiFi and ATM's, but a lot of things you take for granted in the U.S. simply do not exist in my world. And since I'm not exactly a high tech kind of guy, I often feel like Crocodile Dundee in the most common situations when I return here.

It starts in the airport where after a long flight I head straight to the restroom. God forbid #2 is required, when an accidental movement can turn the toilet into a bidet or I find myself wildly gesticulating to activate a motion sensor that's playing hard to get.

Washing my hands afterwards is a supposedly mundane activity that reduces me to looking like one of the kids in Grease "Doin' That Crazy Hand Jive" to get the water flowing and the paper towels expending. My hands are waving everywhere. In front of? Under? How high? How low? Who in the hell decided all this no-touch stuff was a great idea? The whole concept of motion sensing makes no sense to me.

Of course I could opt for one of those Xlerator hand dryers. Never have a problem getting one of those bad boys to turn on. What a macho product. I remember the first time I experienced this ridiculously powerful apparatus. It was after a movie when we lived in Vegas and of course everyone had to pee afterwards--those mega-sized $6.00 soft drinks show no mercy. So maybe six of these beasts were roaring simultaneously and it was like standing on the tarmac behind a jumbo jetliner. These contraptions blow air so violently there should be a warning label about traumatizing small children. Or unexpecting adults---.

But I digress. I buy a few things at the grocery store and swipe my card to make the purchase. Believe it or not even this Flintstones transaction has not made it to Ecuador, which helps give you my perspective on this whole post.

The card doesn't work. Sigh-----. I convey this to the checkout girl and she asks, "Do you have a chip?" I comment that I'm trying to buy some chips but other than that I don't what she's talking about.

"On your card."

"I have no idea." I show her my card. "Do I?"

"Yes, it's right there."

Long silence-----------. "OK, now what do I do?"

"You insert it on the bottom."

"There's a place to insert the card on the bottom?? When did this happen? Why did this happen??"

I think that's the end of it, but the machine has questions of its own for me. "Is ______ the correct amount?" Huh? I hope so. Was I supposed to be following along with a calculator? "Do you want cash back?" Cash back? In Ecuador the clerks actually ask if you have the exact change to give them. I'm just trying to make a simple purchase and this is turning into an interrogation!

I took my daughter to the oncology center for one of her chemotherapy infusions and didn't fare too well even there. The floor she visits has a refreshment room with a refrigerator, water dispenser, coffee maker, and ice machine. After careful reading of the instructions I actually produced a cup of coffee. I know that sounds lame but I was quite proud of myself.

My interaction with the ice machine wasn't as successful. I lined up my drink cup under the spout and pressed the bar above it. Ice comes out. Great. I take my hand off the bar. Ice comes out. And comes out. And comes out. I panic and don't know what to do except yank my cup away.

The ice stops coming out. Seems the machine is activated by--you guessed it--a motion sensor, my new arch nemesis.

So later I'm with my daughter at her station where she's receiving the infusion. This place is set up with recliners like hers all around the perimeter of a large room with everyone facing the center. Which is kind of a shame because through the big window right behind us is a lovely view of the Manhattan skyline.

Given the nature of what's going on here you shouldn't be surprised to learn that the atmosphere is, shall we say, subdued. Most patients and companions say nothing and those that do generally speak quietly like in a library. Adrian and I accumulate some trash with drinks and snacks that I dispose of in a large receptacle in the middle of the room. I step on the pedal and the lid of course rises. I take my foot off the pedal and figure the lid will gently descend.

I figure wrong. It drops like a stone with and goes WHAM!! A grumpy guy says, "Hey, buddy, can you hold it down?" I meekly mouth, "I'm sorry-----."

I don't even want to get into my trials and tribulations buying train and subway tickets. So many screens. So many choices. So many opportunities to screw up, especially when you can just feel the frustrated energy of impatient regular riders behind you who are thinking, "Come on, you moron!"

Or trying to hold said tickets against the glass readers correctly to get through the turnstiles. One employee gave up explaining the proper technique and let me go through the handicap gate. That was a definite low point.

I truly love visiting the U.S. but I'm glad I live in a simple place where you pay cash for almost everything. Where you make coffee in a coffee pot and drink water from the tap, flush the toilet and turn on the faucet with a handle. Where you walk almost everywhere and take a 25 cent bus ride almost everywhere else. Where people don't seem to be in such a hurry to go nowhere special and do nothing important.

And I'm especially happy to be far, far away from every sort of motion sensor.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

It has been over two years since I’ve written about Hearts of Gold, a non-profit charitable foundation here in Cuenca. When I learned they had recently celebrated their third anniversary I decided to visit their offices to check in with Executive Director Natasha Verkley.

I remember when Natasha’s dad, Richard, started Hearts of Gold as a gesture to give back to the local community. He held a raffle for a gold coin in a now defunct restaurant during Gringo Night to help some small cause that had come to his attention.

From that modest beginning Hearts of Gold has certainly come a long way. What began as a simple desire to help impoverished children has grown into a locally recognized foundation that works tirelessly to support “boots on the ground” efforts in poor communities.

Since its founding, Hearts of Gold has been able to increase its total aid output by 698%, impacting the lives of over 3500 children and their families. This remarkable achievement is primarily due to the incredible generosity of Cuenca’s expat community.

Natasha explained to me that Hearts of Gold’s success is based on partnering with compassionate community leaders who recognize problems in their neighborhoods and courageously create organizations to solve them. Hearts of Gold’s commitment to local organizations and their leaders has shown that these groups flourish throughout the years with programs growing and stabilizing through collaboration.

Hearts of Gold has also been able to increase its impact by partnering with both the Province of Azuay to open the first food bank in the province and the Municipality of Cuenca in creating a language exchange program.

This year has been another busy one for Hearts of Gold. In addition to maintaining its regular partnerships, the foundation also responded to Ecuador’s devastating earthquake in the spring, collecting and distributing over $55,000 to ongoing recovery efforts.

Plans for 2017 are focused on a two-pronged approach with Hearts of Gold’s Community Assistance Program. In addition to continuing to help local organizations receive the administrative support and funding they need to carry out their missions, next year there will be a focus on empowering community leaders with the knowledge and skills required to become increasingly self-sufficient. Successful implementation will allow Hearts of Gold to further broaden its assistance efforts.

Based in a country where charity and philanthropy are not heartily embraced, Hearts of Gold is truly an amazing success story. Staffed by four dedicated young women, the organization has positively impacted the entire Azuay province.

And with a look of steely determination in her eyes, Natasha tells me they’re just getting started.

PS. Hearts of Gold wants you to join their team of global givers! Make your holiday donation count this year and support a small grassroots organization that empowers local leaders to enact community change. Readers in the U.S. who would like to support Hearts of Gold with a tax-deductible contribution before the end of the year can do so online at their website.