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.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A Time for Thanks

This has been an unexpectedly challenging year for the Staton family. No patient anticipates a devastating diagnosis from one’s doctor, and no parent can ever be prepared for that phone call from their child saying, “I’ve got cancer.”

The earthshaking developments of the last six months, which came ripe with opportunities to wallow in despair and negativity, have instead fostered for me an increased awareness of wonderful blessings that have revealed themselves during this journey--some surprising, others obvious, and a few hidden in plain sight.

So in the spirit that defines the holiday season here’s what I am most thankful for:

While I am pretty diligent about exercise and diet, our daughter’s battle with cancer has given me newfound appreciation for my own excellent health and the well-being of the rest of the family.

How wonderful that I have three families to cherish--my immediate family with four beautiful grandchildren, my family of close friends at home in Cuenca, and my global network of International Living associates. All add such richness to my life.

I am pleased that Cynthia and I have created a lifestyle that allowed her to be at our daughter’s side within days of the diagnosis, and for us to be able assist our loving family as long as we are needed.

It’s impossible to describe how proud I am that Adrian, upon learning that she would immediately be undergoing a debilitating chemotherapy regimen, said, “Well, then I’m going to be the best chemo patient ever,” and then proceeded to do exactly that.

I am encouraged that through the combination of early detection, an excellent medical team, aggressive treatment, and positive intention by everyone that Adrian’s prognosis is extremely optimistic.

I am blown away by the incredible kindness and generosity of so many individuals who have sent cards and flowers--opened their homes for playdates--picked up from school and driven Adrian to appointments--donated money, meals, and supplies. Some are our friends from Ecuador, classmates from high school that I haven’t seen in years, even total strangers. The basic goodness of people that we have experienced firsthand literally brings tears of joy to my eyes.

Most of all I am eternally grateful for the incredible woman with whom I have had the privilege of sharing almost my whole life. Cynthia is the unwavering rock of our family. Her boundless energy and indomitable spirit are truly inspirational, and by her very presence she makes everyone, especially me, better.

Above our picture on this blog I write, “Life is good!! Be happy!!” After almost seven decades on the planet I thought I knew what that meant. The events of 2016 have expanded my understanding of these words to both a higher and deeper level than I imagined possible.

This is what I know--live with love and kindness in your heart and you will never experience regret. Be grateful for every moment, for each one is unique and precious. And take time to be thankful for everything in your life. Life truly is good!


Sunday, November 6, 2016

On the Road Again

Wow, it's hard to believe after such a short time at home that I'm outta here again tonight. Cynthia and I will be attending a BIG International Living conference (almost 700 attendees!) in Las Vegas next week, then we head east to spend the holidays with our family.

Those of you who don't travel for extended periods of time may not be aware that part of the exit strategy is completely eating down the contents of your refrigerator. I've done such an outstanding job this time that the only remaining food is an apple, three strips of bacon, and two eggs. No question what I'm having for lunch today (after a breakfast of, you guessed it, bacon and eggs). Maybe TOO good a job-----.

I'm often asked by fellow expats if I get caught back up in the "energy" of the U.S. when I'm there. Readers who haven't lived abroad probably don't know what this even means. I'm referring to the over-stressed, over-stimulated, over-scheduled life we left behind and that doesn't exist at least here in Cuenca.

The answer is "no." I find myself in that culture but no longer of it. As a mental tuneup I watched The Matrix again this week (if you've never seen it, you really should) because I actually feel somewhat like Neo whenever I journey to a different location. All around me life is going on but I am experiencing a different reality. I get amused (and a bit sad) to see people getting so worked up about trivialities. I marvel at the sheer abundance in the States and know that excessive consumerism isn't necessary to be fulfilled.

Don't get me wrong--I love my home country and am always thrilled to return. I look forward to a delicious steak, a trip to Target and a huge grocery store, going to the mall, and seeing a movie with the latest technology. And I of course cherish every minute of being with my beloved family.

But I'm always glad to return to our quiet, simple world here in Ecuador. No, we don't have access to all the goodies available in the United States. We instead enjoy something much more important---peace.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The "3 P's" of Our Presidential Election

I’ve been wanting to comment on the upcoming presidential election but there has been so much late-breaking news that I can’t keep up! Perhaps some new development will be in the headlines before you even read this.

What an earth-shaking, ground-breaking campaign we have witnessed. Two celebrity candidates, both profoundly disliked by the voting public, slugging it out for months in an ugly contest for the White House. Charges and countercharges have been so numerous that we’re all exhausted.

I see “3 P’s” in play (and, no, one of them is NOT the word used by Trump with Billy Bush), and two of them have in my mind gotten far too much attention.

Polls

I’m not sure how much the general public pays attention to polls but the media LOVE them. New ones seem to come out every few days with stories about how they indicate this and that.

Problem is, the information presented fluctuates so wildly that they are meaningless. Two weeks ago the pollsters declared the election over and Hillary the winner. According to them there was only a handful of undecided’s insufficient to have any impact on the outcome.

A couple of days ago (and before last night’s bombshell FBI revelation) polls showed Hillary’s lead had shrunk from insurmountable to within margin of error. Now given the previous “conclusive” data how could that have possibly happened in one week?

Polling data was wrong on Brexit. It was wrong recently in Columbia. WAY wrong in both cases. I say ignore all this rubbish.

Personalities

In this corner, a brash, outspoken newcomer with a faulty brain-to-mouth filter. His opponent, a scripted, robotic political veteran with a shady past.

It’s hard to like either one of them, isn’t it? Trump’s membrane-thin skin and supersized ego have opened so many self-inflicted wounds. Clinton is a congenital liar who seems more like a castoff android from Westworld than a real human being.

But sadly their collective flaws have driven much of the hateful vitriol of each candidate’s respective supporters. On social media I observe this behavior is much more pronounced among Hillary fans.

Many of them seem to despise Trump with an intensity that is borderline disturbing. Trump supporter: “Hillary is corrupt and evil.” Hillary fan: “Oh, yeah? Trump is the kind of man who would tie up and beat your child, rape her, then enjoy killing her.” Huh? No contest.

Like them or not, these are our two candidates and we’re voting for President, not Mr. & Miss Congeniality. Let’s force ourselves to quit watching the freak show this campaign has turned into and pay more attention to P #3.

Policies

For this final week, can we put all the “Crooked Hillary” and “woman-hating bigot” nonsense on the shelf and keep our easily diverted minds on what these two deeply flawed people represent for our future? And not just the next four years. Supreme Court appointments will impact us for a generation.

What is their vision on the economy, immigration, foreign policy, national security, deficit reduction, and the host of other vitally important issues? Which position most aligns with your own values?

Let’s make it our business to know as least as much about what’s at stake in this important election as we do about emails and sexual harassment charges. Then let’s vote our conscience on November 8.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Typical Week of Our Expat Life

This article I wrote was just published in IL's Ecuador Insider. Thought you might enjoy it as well.

"My wife Cynthia and I look forward to participating in IL's exciting new Bootcamp event in Las Vegas next month, and I'm sure we'll hear the most-asked question we get from attendees at conferences: "So what do you do all day in Ecuador?"

We've come to understand that this is a roundabout way of wondering, "What would I do all day?" After all, you can do endless research on the weather, healthcare, and cost of living in expat destinations, but it's hard to put yourself in the picture and imagine what daily life is really like.

Since living abroad seems so exotic, our typical answer of "Pretty much the same things you do now," catches people off guard. But honestly, wherever you live, food must be bought and prepared, dishes and clothes washed, and errands run. All between the time you get out of bed in the morning and go to sleep at night.

That being said, we live a charmed life in Cuenca. Simple, but charmed. Except in rare instances (that usually involve setting the alarm to catch an early flight) we wake up whenever our eyes decide to open. The sun is always up—starting the day in the dark is taboo in Casa Staton.

We tend to ease into the day, quietly drinking coffee while checking the news online or reading. Three mornings a week, Cynthia practices yoga in the studio conveniently located in the lobby of our building and I walk to a nearby gym. These are the only regularly scheduled activities in our entire week.

The other four mornings often involve other types of physical activities like riding a stationary bike we have upstairs, or taking a long walk along one of the nearby rivers. The morning is also the time to catch up on emails and talk to our grandchildren in the States on Skype video.

Afternoons are whatever we want them to be—doctor appointments, meeting friends for lunch, going to the grocery store. Sometimes we don't unlock the front door all day, choosing instead to stay home and work on writing assignments, or perhaps cook a nice dinner. Whenever we feel tired we simply lie down and rest.

There was a time when our evenings were filled with social activities, but now we usually choose to prop our feet up with a glass of wine and watch TV or movies. A free Zumba class takes place three times a week in a park across the street that we keep threatening to attend. But it starts at 8 p.m. and…well, you know...

Does this all sound incredibly boring? After spending our adult years in the U.S. being overworked, over-scheduled, and over-stressed, we relish the easy, carefree lifestyle we have created in Cuenca.

Plus, having only three waking hours scheduled each week allows us to spontaneously decide to throw our bathing suits in a bag and go to a spa just outside of town. Or stay out too late with friends having too much fun.

Is there such a thing as having too much fun? I don't think so."