Monday, December 27, 2010

Navidad

We had the misfortune in October to be poor planners arriving in Cuenca during a week-long festival (called Fiesta) based mostly on Cuenca’s independence. So we had to stay in a hotel for a week rather than longer-term accommodation. Turns out not so much luck as these people party all the time!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Quinta Floripes Social Club

Manuel is the patriarch of our new family compound, and he warned us before we signed the lease that we should just let him know if his weekend music bothers us. "Some friends come, and we play music in the garage." The garage attached to our house, actually.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Taking Root (Finding a New Home)

La Quinta Floripes
Despite all the groundwork that has been laid by the tide of gringos to make things easier on newbies, that tide is landing on the beach of retirement living, not family sabbatical living. So, bad metaphors notwithstanding, there is a tremendous apartment/condo market for those looking for fine, controlled spaces with full amenities (security, utilities, cleaning, etc.) included. Investment property is a newish concept here, so unless a place is built to rent, it typically isn't rented.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Ecuador is a "third world country," a phrase which comes from a French term and means "place where everyone drives crazy in loud, smelly cars." So just as we celebrate the value and importance of our labor by taking the day off on Labor Day, so the Ecuadorians celebrate crazy, loud, smelly transportation by not using any.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Guerra de Cambio

Ecuador converted their currency to the U.S. dollar a decade ago. For Gringos that means no cost to convert currency and no crazy math figuring out how much things cost. It also means no pretty money like all the rest of the world has (the U.S. has the plainest money eveeeerrrr). And you know in grade school when we learned about currency and how the U.S. printed money and burned the stuff that was too old and ratty to use? Lies.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Wu of Dunc

I had mentioned before, I think, that Duncan is at an age at which life simply is. On top of that as well, Duncan is naturally very Pooh Bear, for all you pop Taoists.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Adapting

The kids are having some tough times with the move, as we expected. They don't have any friends. They can't communicate with local kids (or anyone else, for that matter). They don't have the schedule they're used to. And the country is just not up to their standards of cleanliness and decorum, it seems.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Now We're Travelin'

We got a call this morning from the son of the owner of the apart/hotel we're staying at right now. He also owns the guide and outfitting business next door. He was going climbing with his kids and we had told him earlier we'd love to meet up with him sometime for that. (Piper is an eager and able climber.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

OK, really, the first days

So yeah, it’s a little weird not really having anything to do. We don’t have to get all the sights in before vacation’s over. So here’s some stuff from our first couple of days wandering aimlessly around...err, around aimlessly.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Now That You've Caught It

Yesterday we spent our first full day in Cuenca. In the morning we still had to deal with lodging for the night, but we got that taken care of and then…then…



Watching paint dry
Then what?

Now if you had somehow got the idea that our family are not planners, let me correct your impression. We have lists of things to do here, lists of things yet to tie up at home, and lists of thoughts that pop up randomly during a day. We each keep several lists in different places on different topics for different purposes.

These are called "systems." Excellent systems. And we each come up with better systems than our previous systems almost every day. Very efficient. Very.

And now we are here having gotten done what we needed to get done to get here. And now we…have to…said we'd…dreamed of…couldn't wait for…

I wonder if this is how Noah felt. You have tons to do in addition to your regular life (just build a gigantic ship to carry every living animal, you know, on lunch breaks or something) that completely consumes you. Till the big day. Close up the doors, and…wait. “Shem, break out the cards. What? What do you mean? Shem, we’re stuck in this smelly, noisy floating zoo for, what, two days, two years? I don’t know. This much I don’t know. I ask. What do I get?  I get ‘…very disappointed in my people…great shame…starting over…you will bring them to a new land, Noah.’ It’s like talking to your mother. So we’re here for God only knows how long, and you forget the cards. Sure, we play Mumblety-peg again, your brother loses another toe. Ham, you are a great carpenter, you could rebuild Heaven from a single tree; for grace you got bupkis. No, we need cards. What are we going to do in here? Shem!...michugena, oy!”

Of course the first day we’re excited to wake up, have breakfast at the hotel, get all ready and go out into our great, unexplored new world. We step out onto the busy Cuenca street, and…which way do we turn? There’s this church plaza right here. Yeah, OK. Nice. Very nice. OK…so did you bring cards, Honey?

All right, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but there is certainly an unexpected feeling you get when trading one M.O. (the one we’re all familiar with: too much too do, too little time) for another (almost nothing to do and ages to do it). The rush of adventure, the excitement of new sights and sounds and tastes, the reading of poetry while hanging in a hammock…these things don’t just happen to you. You forget that exploring the Undiscovered Country still requires a plan, a map, or at least a decent pair of shoes for walking incessantly around.

So we’re letting the overstuffed life disability wear off so that we can learn again to live again in the moment without a plan, and also learn again to plan, not just to do, but to be.

And we’ll learn some nice new card games.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Leaver of the Pack

We told someone recently that we were not only leaving our dog as we go to Ecuador, but we are giving her away. "But she's your pack--you have to take her with you."

It was Old Yeller or Where the Red Fern Grows or something I saw as a kid, where I'm pretty sure it ended up with the kid, shedding tears, having to shoot his own faithful dog to put him out of his misery or something. Yep, that's me, except it feels more like kicking her out of the back of a moving pickup truck as we approach the Canadian border or something. "Sorry, old girl, no dogs allowed..."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

One Week and Counting (Backwards)

Sometimes I envision writing a book about this experience and helping others to do the same thing. Not because I think I will, but because it helps me get through some of what we're dealing with.


So there I am in my wingback leather chair in my study, pipe sticking out of the corner of my mouth, typing away about the moment when, three weeks before we were scheduled to depart, Ecuador experienced a near coup. Tap tap tap. I pause and chuckle to myself as I remember that moment, that feeling like a flaccid, wrinkly balloon which has had the air let out of it. But now, with the past and our experience behind us, what can one do but laugh about the things that prove of no consequence. Tap tap tap. Hah hah! Yes, rich that. Rich.

Rationally I know from my own experiences and the experiences of others that there are times when the bottom feels like it falls out, but if you keep your head about you, the road will rise up to meet you again. Rationally, I know that. But it helps to put on my mental red satin smoking jacket and sit in my imaginary study and pretend I've lived through it and am oh so seasoned now. Tap tap tap.

Actually the near coup was good practice. Now we are one week out from departure and…seemingly regressing in our progress. We are using an attorney in Ecuador who is a friend of a friend. We have had no direct contact or correspondence with him (he doesn't speak English, and I don't want to risk my Spanish on legal matters), and we have had instructions from him only upon asking our friend what's up. So here we are one week out, and we discover, after inquiring again as to the status, that we must go to the nearest Ecuadorian embassy or consulate to provide some documents and actually get our visas. Los Angeles. One week before we're supposed to leave for Ecuador. The whole family.

Tap tap. Tap.

heh heh. tap.

Good times. Good times.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Quiet Riot

It could have been worse. They could have taken up president Correa’s offer  to “come and kill me!” as he tore open his shirt to expose his chest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cultural Relativity

I have to admit that I still struggle in explaining to people the real reason for this sabbatical. There are multiple reasons I've probably covered before: more time to share as a family; learning a language; taking a break from the rat race… But the one that's most important and most difficult to relate is hoping to give our kids a better perspective on our own culture by leaving it and seeing what else is out there.

We've seen loads of preteens with mobile phones texting so they don't have to "deal" with whatever (church, class, dinner guests); young girls wearing shorts with impossible geometries providing uncomfortable revelations; boy scouts earning merit for mastering video games. And yes, it is our responsibility and power to educate, discipline, and control our children, but I think it's just naive to think our parental influence has trump power over the wicked stew of hormones, mores, and opportunities “kids these days” are exposed to. We are all human—kids more so. And we rationalize our environments by what we see before us. Children have no perspective and will realize that whatever wisdom we seem to have, whatever experience we claim, whatever authority we wield, everybody else in the world [as they know it] is doing and telling them something different.

The evidence and influence is stacked against us...here. There (and in this case There is Ecuador) we have two things going for us. First, it's different and not quite so bad culturally in many of the ways we believe the U.S. is. They just don't have the wealth to escape reality as we do. Not as much anyway. But it does, as any culture does, have its problems. But our second advantage is that it is foreign to us, or we are to it, as you like. And that, we have heard many families who have gone this route say, creates a stronger bond, a greater need for each other. Our daughter might still see a twelve-year-old walking down the street with her butt cheeks popping out of her shorts at every step while she talks on her mobile phone crossing a busy street. She might still see lots of them. But there she is much more likely to see that as an oddity (as she will likely see most things) rather than an aspiration.

Or at least that's the bet.

But I have recently found a quote from Kurt Vonnegut that says very well what I seem to have trouble saying to people, at least so that they get it.

And it is...
"I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on...and one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity. I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it."
Thank you, Mr. V. And if you still don't get it, you're perfectly fine where you are: we'll send pictures.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Every Family's Got One

My brother is staying with us while the restraining order is in force. This is a first occurrence for my brother and was a ridiculous application of law enforcement. It should not reflect badly on his character, which, though flawed, is generous and fun. But it also doesn't surprise those of us who know him. It has been said of we three siblings that Chris is the smartest, and while it does call into question exactly what "smart" means, that is arguably true.

Which goes nowhere in explaining how he has (so far) ended up jobless and purposeless. Having just written that sentence, I think I might transpose "jobless" with "purposeless" and begin getting to an explanation. I don't want to be new-agey and preachy, and though I have been through the "purpose" boot camp in my personal and professional lives, I don't think Purpose is all quite as neat and tidy and tied up in a best-selling dust jacket as it was presented to me in those lives. I still can't recite my Special Purpose from memory (yes, it's written down), as I don't think I truly understand what it means, practically speaking. But I do have a visceral sense of purpose that I believe I follow most of the time.

While my brother may say this life sucks, so what's the point, I'm not sure he believes it. In my advanced age I'm still not sure what "the point" is, but I do think that whether life sucks or not is just a an individual choice. The beauty of aging is that nearly every experience, if you're really paying attention, shows you that you were wrong about something, and that after all these Being Wrongs, you are probably no worse off, and potentially better off, than you were before. And so what you eventually learn, if you're paying attention, is that having some sort of preconceived notion--a belief--doesn't do you a spit of good.

When you live in a house you pay no rent for, eat food you don't buy, watch a television all day you don't own, don't work or pay taxes...life is going to suck, no matter what you believe.

Or, alternately, when you have a monthly rent you have to pay, have to go shopping and cook food, have to pay a cable bill and buy a new digital TV, work 40 hours a week that you only bring home 80% of your wages from...life still sucks.

Or...not. The difference in the two scenarios is not the scenario, it's the choice at the end. Life is what it is. Choose life. Life is beautiful. There's just one life to live.

I talk to my brother and throw every platitude I've got at him and I realize the whole thing's just for me anyway, because there's nothing I can do to help him. And I realize that, as I let go of the sadness of such a beautiful person withering away, it is always easier to speak truth to another than to oneself. Purpose is not a profession, nor a direction, a decision, a skill, a path, a destination...Purpose is embracing life, and honesty, and engaging others and one's own mind and spirit, and exploring, and loving fearlessly.

My brother, and many others, and still me, await their purpose in the mail. Or on the infomercial. In the classifieds. Special Opportunity for the Right Person. Unlimited Revenue Potential. Set your Own Hours. Be your Own Boss.

No matter what we believe this sabbatical will "give us," what we get out of it will be what we take out of it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

My Special Purpose

I’ve begun to suspect that either our goals or our evaluation standards may be flawed. When you are looking to clear out the house and get really excited about going through two old bottles from the liquor cabinet, has your eye slipped off the prize? Why is now the time to finish off what hasn’t earned the touch of my tongue since my bachelor days? I’ve got bottles of booze in there from 15 years ago. If I didn’t drink it back then, what is going to appeal about some mystery blue liqueur now?

Maybe that’s it: we’re separating the grain from the gross. Tonight we just finished off a bottle of decent tequila and a bottle of Cointreau, both of which had just splashes left. The kids are going to their grandparents this entire coming week, though, and I wonder what wickedness may come if we start out a week without children thinking we need to thin the booze herd. This is our week to get things done, so a little focus is required.

I may just be having a little short-timers guilt. I haven’t (yet) become completely useless at work, knowing I have no responsibility to the job in 11 weeks. And I own this job anyway, so I’m actually working harder now to try to get things in shape for my replacement. But I realized the other day that I’ve been fantasizing about leisure. I will learn Spanish in a hammock. I will learn guitar by a river. I will spend hours a day cooking with my wife. I will play with my children to exhaustion.

And no matter what else the angel on my shoulder says, I will continue to have lustful thoughts of leisure. But I’ve been realizing that this trip is primarily to give our children perspective on our culture at home, and get lessons in life that they might not otherwise get at home. So we don’t want to be teaching our children that leisure is the ultimate objective of life, or that you can give up work and responsibility to get it.

I assume that I, possibly we, will get engaged in the community in more than a social way. But what is to ensure that? That is, what will we end up doing without having some explicit purpose to this adventure?

Di’s mom suspects we are doing this to scratch our own travel itch, and not for the beneficent and patronly reasons we believe. And if we do launch without first having set our minds to some expectation of what we get out of this, then she may turn out to be right.
Now, just where is that special purpose?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Willful Abandonment of Comfort and Joy

We can’t know what things we will discover about ourselves or our culture on this sabbatical, but we know already some things that we will miss. We even seem to be preemptively missing some of them before we go.

The other night we made fine use of our gracious, dependable, and comfortable built-in babysitters. Di's parents are both near to us and amazingly helpful and generous people. It was not long before this night that we had the “sit-down, this-is-real, we're-really-going” talk with them. We had dropped the possibility in conversation several times before, and they did watch the kids for most of the time we did our two-week scouting trip. You can't say that this was a real surprise to them, but given the kind of people that both Di and I are, you also can't blame them for holding out hope that we just had burrs in our saddles that we had to work out...fantasize a little...catalog shop...and then come back to earth and stay in Minturn.

So it may still have been a dash of cold reality in the face. We're taking their grandchildren away from them for two years. Even if they do come down to visit, it will be far less time with the kids than they have now, and far more work to have it. And they aren't feeling quite as springy in the step as they once did. And the thought of a primitive, third world South American country must be daunting.

They are shining examples of postwar America, the product of the Greatest Generation: unwavering values, dependable friends and neighbors, generous but modest, hardworking. And they have a comfort in life unprecedented for a middle class in human history, that was certainly earned for all those listed reasons and more.

Everything that postwar America brought to us and the world--all that comfort, clear reward for hard work, a chicken in our pot and a car in our garage--we're eschewing for...what exactly?

But Bill and Jan are not people to interfere or criticize, no matter how crazy or inconceivable an idea might seem to them. So they grin and bear it…and pray that we'll come to our senses. Our hope is that they do come visit, realize what a wonderful place Ecuador really is, and decide to stay longer. We are both hoping against each other's nature, I suppose. But we hope.

That night out that Bill and Jan gave us was spent out for a friend's birthday dinner on the patio of a favorite restaurant. Charlie's family was there as well as some friends we knew and some we met that night. It was simple, engaging, relaxing, friendly, and dozens of other adjectives that we know we will have a harder time finding in Ecuador, where we have no such friends, relationships, or even the ability to so easily converse in the same language.

But because we know we will miss evenings like this, we already appreciate them more. And it is one thing to imagine, but another thing to live. So we are embracing the challenge of not having those things, and the other things we will miss but have not even imagined yet. And we are also excited for the unexpected inspirations and undreamt of discoveries. It is this willful abandonment of comforts and joys that we know, for the challenges and surprises we don't know, that gives us confidence in pursuing lives less ordinary.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Scouting Trip: The Coast

Before arriving in Ecuador the coast was our primary target for a home. Upon arriving we learned that services, particularly schools, were fairly lacking in any of the places we wanted to be. So, though we’d already written it off as a potential home, hey look, we’re done scouting and we’ve got some time. Vamos a la playa!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Otavalo and Cotacachi

Among Crafties, Otavalo is already famous as one of the world’s best indigenous crafts markets. Among Sabbaticalies, it is (along with its satellite community, Cotacachi) second only to Cuenca as the choice retirement spot for North American gringos.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Quito and Cumbaya

As I’d mentioned before, Quito was never on our list as it’s a big city with pollution and crime. But we later learned about a nice suburb there called Cumbaya. And we had to fly to Quito to check out some towns north of there anyway. So, we held hands, closed our eyes and began singing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Loja and Vilcabamba

Ecuador is a only the size of Colorado, but it probably has the surface area of Texas. Here’s what you do: take Texas and squoosh it into the space of Colorado, heaving all the land up into dramatic folds called mountains. Then, wouldn’t it be fun to put winding, narrow roads all over that sharp topography and drive big buses over them really, really fast?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Car and Diner

I am excited to live for two years without a car. That that is so possible in Ecuador begs the question why cars here are still the dominant form of life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Fear and Locking

Ecuador is a country of Haves and Have-Nots. But listening to the warnings of the locals and seeing the walled homes and locked gates, you might think it was Beirut.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Scouting Trip: The Kindness of Strangers

To follow the short summary of our scouting trip, here begins some general observations of our trip to Ecuador.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Scouting Trip: Call a Place Paradise

Di and I have returned from the scouting trip to Ecuador. We had the extraordinary luxury of having grandparents watch our four- and six-year-old kids while we were away for two weeks. That happens only once in a lifetime. So the research that we did beforehand was to narrow down the scouting trip to the country we were positive about. This isn’t “are we going to Ecuador,” but “where in Ecuador are we going.”

But.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Weepy Privileged White People

I was thinking the other night that perhaps one of the things driving me for this sabbatical is that I'd like to have a story. I'm not looking for something to publish and profit from. And I don't particularly care to share this story with people I don't know (why I'm writing in this blog is a question left begging, but I may address that later). Of course we already have a story, and best sellers have already been written about the extra ordinariness of ordinariness. And there will be more. But I am interested in a story I would like to read. I have little ability to tell stories. I am an introvert and a bad communicator. So I just want a story merely for us. Or maybe the kids will write about it after I’m gone and can no longer embarrass them.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wayyelek

I was fortunate enough tonight to have dinner with the rabbi from B’nai Vail (I call her the eco-rabbi) and two other Jews not from her congregation. I learned (among many other things) of a program/concept/practice in some Judaic circles (OK, maybe learned is a bit of an exaggeration) called “wayyelek”. At least I think that was the name of it. That Hebrew word means "and he set out." Let’s not worry if I got the name right, though, and think about the idea I took away from it.

The rabbi was talking about a Jewish program she had once participated in that, six months into it, she discovered was about Abraham leaving his homeland, kin, and father’s house. The point of this program was that Abraham left his heritage in order to truly discover it. So I don’t know if this program was a challenge to the foundation of these young Jews’ religion or culture in hopes they see it from some other perspective. I certainly don’t see anything explicit or really even implicit in the Bible that demonstrates this idea, but perhaps it’s in the rabbinical tradition, which I am thoroughly ingnernt about.

Still, the idea certainly resonates with me. We believe we are exceptionally blessed to live in the United States. But we never knew just how great that States is, or how much better it could be, before seeing what it isn't! That is precisely why Di and I think that extended travel outside the U.S. is so important for the sake of our own country. Without perspective, do we become (or have we already become) a nation of solipsistic navel gazers?

The gentleman at dinner tonight asked “what don’t you like about the U.S?” (“to cause you to leave” being the implication). And now this provides a perfect answer--it is not to leave it that we leave; it is to remind ourselves of, and give our kids a way to see, the possibility and promise of our homeland.

And also we’re really sick of working so much.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Bout of Reluctance

I had my first flash of reluctance for our sabbatical last night, and then had that feeling reinforced a bit today.

Last night I was walking home from a meeting of a transportation committee I serve on for our small town. The regional bus service has cut service drastically because of the recession and our small town was hit probably hardest by those reductions. But that really just caused us to look at our transportation needs, and the ideas that have been popping up are as cool and funky as our town. (For those not familiar with Minturn, Colorado, let me read a bit of the introduction to our community plan: “The Town of Minturn values...its funky, eclectic style.” So see, we are officially funky.)

So I’m walking back from this meeting on a beautiful, clear, mountain night, having just been brainstorming cool, funky solutions for our cool, funky town, and I’m imagining how much more funkified Minturn could be and how fun it would be to have a hand in that.

Then today I was to meet up with a team of U. of Colorado students in an advanced masters course. They will be examining our valley this school term with design and planning eyes to transportation, natural resources, community, energy, and other issues. When I arrived there, they were already set up classroom style facing a panelist table. I didn’t expect to be placed before these guys looking like some expert. I am not. But I and three others from our community got to essentially think out loud on high-minded concepts with these students, free from the pool of political, social, economic and other constraints that we locals usually swim in. But this “studio” project is more about discovering what’s possible, not what the challenges are to those possibilities, which is the world we all typically deal with in trying to create change in our communities.

And again, I think about what exciting and interesting things could be happening here while we are away in Ecuador.

But at the same time I realize, from events like this one with the design students, that great possibility reveals itself best when we are able to shed our biases, change our perspectives, step away from our expectations—to be foreign in our own homes. And I know that possibility is always limitless, and that great opportunity will always lie ahead, no matter what great or horrible things may be unfolding at any time. So I am content, no, even more excited, to go to South America, after experiencing that reluctance, because this trip will make what I am afraid of missing actually more rewarding and rich by gaining new perspective.

Yeah, that's it. Thanks for your time today, Doc. I'm all re-rationalized.

Monday, January 4, 2010

For Whom the Dart Points

We’ve made our decision about which country we’ll live in for our two-year family sabbatical.