Thursday, December 29, 2011

Return of the Prodigal Family

And now that the prodigal family is returned, let's look at some of the basic whys of the return—the things we already find to appreciate.

We arrived in Miami to well-organized, polite, efficient processing through Passport Control, Customs, and baggage-claim. Sure, we occasionally had to walk around a fresh pool of someone's purged motion sickness (feel better now?), but that was considerately cordoned off with orange cones. Now it's not fair to compare this experience to entering Ecuador, because residents are always treated better than foreigners, but it is refreshing to have at least a sense of order.

We stayed in Miami for a day with our friends, who are also magnificent hosts. I say this because Mike treated us first to beer. To say it was great beer is to first diminish the fact that it was not Pilsner or Club, the two ubiquitous Ecuadorian brews. Choice. Remarkable. And Mike offered us a choice for dinner, which included steak or lobster, or steak and lobster. Or maybe it was just the illusion of choice, but included with the illusion was delicious wine and salad—actual salad, with various greens, chopped vegetables, and dressing.

Awe inspiring

Betsy and Mike asked Piper what she thought of returning to this country. "Good," she said, and then coyly walked over to me and whispered in my ear, "But it doesn't feel like another country." Miami is indeed a soft re-entry, which Mike calls North Havana. In the airport, the unique and attention-grabbing Latin fashion (painted-on spandex, precipitous high heels, determined breasts, and copius bling) abounds as it does in Ecuador. And I realized, after the fact, that the whole conversation I had with the clerk at the snack stand in order to get change to make a phone call was in Spanish, which she initiated.

The beach was trash free and beautiful, but there were no guys pedaling ceviche carts (selling mussels they simply go in the water to replenish, once they've run out). The driving was like buttah, with smooth and orderly infrastructure and drivers actually using the lines that the government went to all the trouble of having painted on the roads (we wondered why they bothered to spend the money in Ecuador).

We ate a delicious Asian lunch. One of the peculiar things in Ecuador was that, though there are Chinese restaurants (as there are in all parts of the world), we never found one that actually tasted like the Chinese food found in all other parts of the world. But, though the green curry was very good, the actual chicken in it had more the consistency of packing peanuts, without any of their flavor. I still miss EcuaChicken. And there's a price for good food: we paid $50 for food that is no better (though more diverse) than an Ecuadorian almuerzo, which would have cost us about $8.

After lunch we went to a playground where Piper again appreciated being home, as we noted that we were about the only English speakers there. But we don't stand out so much in a crown here. As Piper said, "At least nobody's gonna stare at us here."

I initially appreciated hot showers available at all times that don't turn cold when anyone in the building turns on their tap. But then I realized I was spending less time in the shower in Ecuador, and therefore out living my life. But, I still manage to appreciate hot showers, even if it means sacrificing a few minutes of my life a day to hedonism.

I searched in vain for a knife sharpener in Ecuador. I just mean the one you usually have in your knife collection that is actually just a de-burring stone. I could only ever find real knife sharpening services that are overkill for your everyday kitchen needs. And so even with a sharp knife it wasn't much time before I was squishing tomatoes while trying to cut them. Yeah, OK, I won't try to explain to you the little things in my life that really float my boat, but sharp knives is one of them.

There is only one fruit in the States that we found is better than Ecuador. Oranges are more tart and not as sweet in Ecuador. So now I can appreciate oranges and orange juice here.

Snow! Any fears that the kids or we would have a tough time re-entering during the coldest winter months after a year and a half of spring were put to the test our first day in Denver. Ten inches of snow dropped on the city, and we had to scramble to put together some winter protection before the kids bounced themselves right out the door in excitement.

I know the newspaper's here somewhere

Christmas in Cuenca is something people from all over Ecuador come to see. It is beautiful, with its own traditions mingled with some of the more popular ones from around the world (Papa Noel). But for us, of course, it lacks some essential Christmas ingredients: cold, if not snow; real Christmas trees, carols we recognize; and family. We had great friends in Ecuador and met amazing people. Sometimes we'd get frustrated with things in Ecuador, because we didn't have the cultural experience to understand them. And we'd privately wonder how some people, having lived part of their lives in the States, would prefer to live in Ecuador. And the most simple and basic reason is, of course, because it is home. Our home is not better, but we see it differently because it is our home.

So what we most appreciate about coming back, is just being home.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What we'll miss in Ecuador

We're on a flight back to the U.S. from Ecuador right now, and it already feels like we're fleeing the country to escape the Aw Thaura Tees. I've got $3,000 in cash in my pocket and half our lives in five suitcases, four carry-ons, and four personal items (capable of fitting under the seat in front of us); I was called to the gate at the airport and escorted past drug dogs for a personal checked baggage inspection; my seven-year-old daughter was also called to the gate for a "random" (perhaps a little too cute and innocent) terrorist scanning with the explosive residue attractant little pieces of paper thingys that they feed into the machine thingy to see if she was making explosives with her Sleeper Cell Terrorist Barbie play set; and I realized after boarding that I got through security with a 12-oz bottle of water sticking out of the outside pocket of my backpack. So I thought I should get out the Things We'll Miss About Ecuador post before we're caught.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Self Improvement

Given that we are leaving Cuenca in just three days and Ecuador in four, I've got loads of other super duper important posts to do. But my last post being essentially about self improvement, there is just too much karmic vibe to ignore this post that came out the same day. It's from Leo Babauta's wildly popular "Zen Habits" blog that essentially parried my self improvement thrust. And so…my riposte.

Let's first sum up the post: self improvement is a contradiction. As a tiger chasing its tail, the thing we pursue (contentment) is forever pulled from us by our deliberate search for it. Leo asks in the post where does this self improvement end? When is anyone ever content with who they are?

And perhaps he implicitly answers that question with his advice to realize that we are already perfect and to quash the urge to improve. So the act of improvement seems a contradiction.

But let's back up one step. Explicit delivery of a truth in most mystic traditions is forbidden (or impossible) because the truth imparted inevitably will not be the one received anyhow. If you want someone to get somewhere, you can't tell them where it is; you must tell them how to get there.

So in this case, where's Leo? Well, perhaps if he were to have made this more explicit he would have underlined "urge" in his advice. Because, to realize we are perfect and to quash an urge, would not we believe ourselves to be improved by no longer having an urge to improve? Upon re-reading, then, he never explicitly says that improvement is bad. Following this logical path, he now seems to be implying that the urge to improve is what is suspect.

So to resist the urge to improve while still seeking to improve can remain noble (again, on this logical path). And if Leo's really a student of Buddhism this jives with the essential Buddhist tenant that desire is the source of all suffering.

And Buddhism is nothing if not comfortable with apparent contradictions, as it believes there are no true contradictions (only our own confusion or misunderstanding). Still, Leo seems to be reinforcing the apparent contradiction between self improvement and contentment rather than dissolving it. Bad, sensei, bad (am I confusing my Eastern arts now?).

Funny how I've spent a year of calm relaxation and reflection in a culture that is much more tranquilo, and still I can end up thinking to myself, can you just bottom line this for me, Leo?

So, touché, Leo, or no? I still stick by my self improvement foil, even if I have to reconsider fencing analogies when I end up only dueling with myself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Still drinking out of a wine juice box

Not long after arriving in Ecuador Teddy and I were up late (after 9pm) talking. He related some bonehead thing he did that could just as easily have been anyone's bonehead move. Then he smiled and shook his head, saying "Typical Teddy." Then after a short pause and with the residue of the smile still left on his face and his eyes now looking off into some photo album in his brain, he says, "I gotta make typical Teddy mean something else."

Now, I only pick particularly on Teddy because typical Teddy is such a great line (and he's a pretty hard target to miss), because many of us could say the same thing (or should).

We all work to improve ourselves, I think. It's why I love getting old (besides hoping that one day I'll finally look my age, or at least old enough to drink); if you're honestly working to improve yourself, every year is better than the last. One of the greatest barriers to self improvement…no, wait, the only barrier…is ourselves. We tend to rationalize, deflect, and excuse our way out of taking responsibility for ourselves and our failures. There are many things in life we can blame our little failures on: work got in the way; the kid got sick; it's really cold outside; the dog ate my homework.

But most of those things we shift blame to are just the thing of everyday life. And if we don't take life into account, our lives will ultimately be only stories of why not.

Or so we have found out on this sabbatical. We have stripped away not just our regular jobs, but many other commitments, responsibilities, and time-consuming opportunities. We no longer serve on boards and committees in our community. We don't have many social functions to attend. We don't have lots of friends or family nearby whom we haven't seen in a while and need to spend time with. We have, in short, nothing but ourselves and the day in front of us. Awesome, right?

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm afraid I look better with clothes on. And it's kinda like that. Without all those obligations and opportunities that create the structure of our lives and tell us and others who we are, we are stripped down to the raw us, and some of what we find ain't all that pretty. But unless you honestly know where you're starting, it will take longer to get where you want to go.

Still, unless you are looking at your naked self and seeing what you want to be rather what you don't like, you'll end up trying to fix what's wrong, rather than trying to create what's right. And that may be the greatest lesson we've learned here; be ready to look in the mirror, but don't waste time lamenting what you see. Get busy making typical Teddy mean something else.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A simple life

Just checked the weather in Denver and Vail. Flip flops may not cut it for friggin' 15 below zero! Good thing we gave them one last dip in the sand. I won't tempt you with too much of this beach trip, except for the cool fishing we got to witness.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Living In a Bubble: Fending Off Conformity

On one of my "in between" periods of unemployment in my life I traveled Australia and New Zealand for a bit. At the time it was the longest period of travel I'd ever had, long enough that when I returned I had…an event.

I had recently returned to Up Over (from Down Under) and was driving down a busy, major street in Denver. I had a peculiar sensation of moving slowly through all the pulsing energy of a morning commute, isolated and safe, like a Disneyland ride. I was mentally removed—and felt physically removed, as in a bubble—from what seemed surging and insistent purposelessness. This is how it will feel to the first enlightened ants, I think.

But I was on my way to a job interview or some other responsible thing. And I knew I was going to get back into it. So I did a Vulcan mind meld on myself at that moment—rememberrrrr.

And I have remembered, but recalling that memory now and again has only nudged me gradually toward a life more permanently in that bubble of isolation. I recall it now because we are about to leave Ecuador and our sabbatical, and return home But part of that experience on Colfax Avenue years ago was realizing that I was not walking into this experience; it was not a rip in the space/time/responsibility continuum. It was a state of mind.

And was it a state of mind only, or an early and necessary mental step to achieving a state of being? I choose door number 2, Monty.

And so, as we are returning home, we are thinking about how we incorporate what we have learned on our sabbatical into our lives, no matter where we are or what's happening. Some of those things are merely logistical: how we think about and achieve education for ourselves and the kids; how we continue to learn and use this new language; how we achieve the financial independence to allow a more flexible lifestyle.

But we will lose focus even on those logistical things if we don't also make the state of mind influence our planning and everyday decisions so that ultimately we have a different sensibility and confidence in our own shoulds. For us, and I think most people, what keeps us in the most common denominator and our own personal mediocrity is our natural tendency to measure ourselves against others and feel pressure to conform to social expectations. The phenomenon of, as I've heard it put before, being should on.

That social influence is usually implicit and subtle. When we'd tell people that we were quitting our jobs and living in Ecuador for a year the response was usually, "That's bold." But half the time the emphasis was on bold, implying excited approval, and the other half on that's, being a polite way to say stupid. And what we worried about was not the actual sabbatical itself or coming home poor and unemployed, but what others would think of that.

Would people judge like that? I don't think so. And why should we care if they do? But that's how your mind turns doubt into fear and fear into conformity. Now that we have done the sabbatical and are returning home there will be both real and imagined pressure to get back into the rat race. So we are working on strategies to maintain our current state of mind and make it a state of being, despite pressures to "normalize."

One of the best ways we can think of to maintain that state of mind is make it our business. We're working on a website and "inbox magazine" to encourage and help other families to take sabbaticals. The business itself, if successful, would untether us geographically, provide more flexible income, and help keeping us from stepping in hot, steamy piles of should.

We'll announce that soon, but in the meantime, watch your step.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


"Hello, Peter. Whaaaat's happening?"

This from a recent Bloomberg article: Americans working too much. Anyone out there disagree? Anyone since 1975? So Bob, how we doin' there on that working too much thing? I think the article was subtitled "but keep watching TV; it's making you smarter."
Wanna cry? Here's some excerpts from the department of Statistics to Prove What We Already Know.
  • In 1965 a U.S. Senate subcommittee predicted that due to automation Americans would be working just 20 hours a week and taking at least seven weeks of vacation a year.
  • In 1991 Joe Average had added 163 hours to his work year since 1973. And now Jane Average (Joe's wife) was also working full time, so the average per family was 500-700 more than the 70's. (And anyone think we're working less than 1991? We surpassed the Japanese by the end of the 90's as the worlds sweathogs.)
  •  Median annual paid vacation time for Joe and Jane these days? Less than one week.
But at least the rest of the world has been having to compete with us to keep up. Right? World?

Dutch workers put in less than 1,400 hours a year and get a minimum of four weeks of vacation a year. I used to do my staff budgeting using the standard figure 2080 hours per year for full time, 120 of that as paid vacation. And the Netherlands has a positive trade balance, ranks fifth in life satisfaction, and enjoys the highest children's welfare (as in well-being, not a government programs) in the world. Man, there are just two things I can't stand in this world...

So, now that the dollar buys less, jobs are scarce, still got the big mortgage…better really start showing 'em who's a hard worker, eh? People keep saying that doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. OK, no, it isn't. It's got nothing to do with insanity. Besides, as a negative motivation, it ignores the fact that these days insanity is cool. But can we agree that doing the same thing and expecting different results is…stupid? I think we can.

So what are you going to do? Think about it next time you've got some time off.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A quiver of insults

Taking a break from thinking too much--or at least thinking way too seriously--with this little road game. We are all familiar with the terms of venery for many common animals: a herd of cattle, a gaggle of geese, a school of fish. There are also some less common, but very cool names: a parliament of owls, intrusion of cockroaches, and my personal favorite, a murder of crows. And it occurred to me the other day that traveling nationals deserve their own terms to fit our stereotypes for them. Here are some to get us started, and please contribute in the comments.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My friend the witch doctor--the jungle part II

Upon seeing the breathtaking display of nature and life that is the Amazon Jungle, one is overcome with the desire to completely destroy it and everything in it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Heart of Snarkness--the jungle, part I

We are from a high sierra ecosystem...I think. Whatever it's called, the point I'll make about our ecosystem is that it's sun-baked, windswept, bitterly cold in winter and covered with snow, and dry in summer. We have laws in Colorado prohibiting picking wildflowers or otherwise trampling certain foliage, and limiting hunting and fishing to protect species. It is an ecosystem defined by scarcity. The jungle, on the other hand, is a surging sea of life and abundance.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The jungle (on approach)

Yeah, we're not on a bus!
So we've been here in Ecuador a year and had not yet managed to get into the Amazong Jungle. Since we finally had someone here to talk to Teddy after 9pm a night we took the fam, Teddy, and our friend Juls to the edge of civilization, entered it, and left the rest of the world behind. But first...we went to Baños again.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Amidst the Noise and Haste

I came here to write a blog post about Americans working too much and also do some other work. I won't even diminish the fun irony of that sentence by commenting further on it...unless I just did. I will just go straight into telling you that the Americans Working Too Much will have to wait, because I have just entered a profound and euphoric state and I have to tell someone about it.

San Sebastian has always been my favorite plaza in Cuenca and I can't tell you why. It is at the edge of the historic El Centro, the area responsible for Cuenca's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It is bordered by San Sebastian cathedral, the Art Museum housed in an old convent, and some small, unremarkable businesses. Because it is away from the commercial core and any other kind of traffic generator, it is always a very tranquil setting. The fountain is usually not running (as most aren't in Ecuador), but it has been running in five minutes on, five minutes off cycles right now for reasons probably only two guys in Cuenca's public works department probably know. The pauses in the fountain are welcome, though, because opera music is playing from speakers on the light posts at an uncharacteristically modest volume (Ecuadorians love it loud and distorted, typically). It is bordered on two sides with fairly constant traffic, including that of the perpetually smell, noisy town buses, but somehow feels isolated from it. There are birds singing in the trees. And there are eight people I see from where I sit who are also doing nothing but sitting, watching, thinking, so I'm not the only one. Except I'm the only one mucking it up by thinking onto a computer (gah, I'm such a loser!).

I give you the F. Scott Fitzgerald treatment to detail here, not because I'm trying to bring you into my mental euphoria right now (all F. Scott did for me was create a profound sense of boredom that I suppose could be the state that meditators speak of when they lose all care about the world around them); I tell you all this because…well, I guess because I can't figure out why this park does it for me so much. Maybe all that will trigger a memory of someone else who's had this in a particular place and had insight into why that was.

I mean, the easy answer is all the reasons I gave, but I think there are plenty of places like this. Why this place? And—deep breath and hold it; we're about to go deep—I take stock in the phrase we do not see the world as it is; we see the world as we are. Really, all this is just a particular pattern of sensory input to which my brain provides an emotional response: euphoria in this case. So the question is, can I take this with me? Can I imagine, envision, and trick my brain into this place when I am not in it?

That's an important questions now, because we are talking about leaving Cuenca now and making our plans. And I will miss this particular place if I cannot take it with me in my mental carry-on.

I once returned from a long trip to Australia and New Zealand and was driving my truck down busy Colfax Avenue in Denver and had a strange sensation that I was moving through the world much slower than everyone and everything around me. It was a similar feeling of being removed from the world as it is, or of seeing the world as we all believe it to be from the place that it truly is.

I don't know, but a bird just pooped on my screen, and I'm taking that as a sign from God that I may be overthinking it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

All That and Flush Toilets, Too!

Just another reminder for anyone wondering whether they can afford a family sabbatical (even a non-working one). Here are some pictures of our new apartment and Mama's Little Helper. No pictures of the flush toilets here in the Third World, however, so you'll just have to take my word for the three in the apartment.

We're on the top of a 4-story building in a 4-bedroom apartment. I'd call it fully furnished, but that would be underselling it. We have the first T.V. we've had in over ten years, though we keep forgetting to watch it (it really would be great for our Spanish to watch Latin soap operas). It's loaded with kids' toys and a pre-princessed room for Piper. It's got a computer, Internet, stereo, and a balcony on every bedroom.

And the best thing it has? Chicha!

Included in our rent is this walking miracle who cleans, cooks, does laundry, babysits, teaches us Spanish, keeps the plants alive, and generally provides for nice company. She makes a full lunch every day that we all sit down to, helps prep for parties, and teaches us how to cook Ecuadorian. Part of her time is covered in our rent, but we pay a bit extra to get her full time.

Clearly we are living higher on the hog than we need to, but we are because...we can. I mean, this place is nicer than our home. This is a bit like the first new car I ever bought (leased, really). After my three year lease was up, I was done owning new cars. I got the fix, realized it wasn't a good investment, and now I get all the car I need or want for half the price. Next time we sabbatical, I don't know that we'd go so big, but some of this is circumstantial (furnished places are rare here), so we'll wait and see what the future holds.

But in case you're curious, all in (rent, all utilities, Internet, Chicha) is $790 a month, a princely sum here, and less than half our mortgage for our little 1,700 sq. ft. house  at home.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Taking it seriously--preparing for Cotopaxi

The hills are alive

We did a warmup hike for Cotopaxi to see how we do with a bit more air beneath us instead of in our lungs. We happen to live right next to Cajas National Park in Cuenca, so we elected for a short, steep route to mimic the Cotopaxi slog as much as possible. But we were baffled at why the Cajas map shows this route, at just under 4km (2.5 miles) round trip, taking over 6 hours to complete. But just the time it took to find the trail was our first indication as to how this could be true.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Because it my way

Look a mountain--let's climb it...Cotopaxi as seen from our hostel in Latacunga
When asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." Well I call poppycock on that. I have just climbed the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi (at 19,347 feet or 5,897 meters), and can now say that I will be very excited to climb another mountain like it...if I can't go around it. It was a phenomenal experience, but not one I feel the need to replicate. It's kinda like my wedding, which was an awesome, huge, fun party that I never, ever want to have again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Today season

Let's lay the entire Ecuadorian culture back on the couch. Go ahead, relax. Get comfortable. So tell me more about this problem you have with planning or thinking about the future. I see, so it's not a problem for you, but for others around you? Interesting. Tell me more about that. What, then, is their problem, and why do you think you are both different?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The buck stops...well now, where did it get to?

We had an apartment warming party the other night and our friends' 4-year-old, who is now functionally fluent, dropped a glass that broke on the wood floor. Teddy related later this thought that flashed in his mind: "I wonder if she'll blame the glass." And she said, "It fell by itself." Now this is not a story on clairvoyance. It is a ponderance on the Spanish language and my continual psych couch analysis of the Ecuadorian culture.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Birds and bees and boobies (heh heh)

"Hello!" or possibly "Go away...little farther..."
I was about to go on about our first overnight bus trip going from Mindo in the clouds to Puerto Lopez on the sea and the blaring loud music they playing all night long. But this is a happy post with parades, happy giant splashy animals, boobies (heh heh), and even a happy funeral procession. So I will refrain from reliving that sleepless night on that infernal, speaker box of a bus from hel...oops. Anyway, we're going to our happy Puerto Lopez for whale watching season.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mindo a go go

After sending Mom off back in Quito, we spent a couple of days there to do a little kid-centric exploration before heading to the cloud forest of Mindo.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Clinics and Condors and Commerce...oh my (Mom 3)

We were a little reluctant to leave Baños after having such a simultaneously invigorating and relaxing visit. But the legendary market of Otavalo is not to be missed by visiting retirees with a little extra room in the suitcase.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A visit to Bathroom (Grandma part 2)

Get your picture with a gringo -- one dollar
Some people may think twice about visiting a place named after a bathroom, but this was actually our second time to Baños de Ambato (or officially, Baños de Agua Santa, which I think is much prettier, and more appealing to think you're flushing with holy water).

(Go here for more general first-time impressions of Baños, but read on for more of Teddy and Nana Bear's adventures this time around.)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Club Med this ain't -- a visit from Grandma (part 1)

My mom was recently here for a visit that was probably for her more like vacation boot camp. But, c'mon, who comes to South America for two weeks? Whatever happened to that tradition of travel where you loaded up two or three trunks with leather straps, covered all the furniture in the manor with sheets, and spent 3-6 months on trains and steamer ships to visit distant relatives on their country estates? Oh yeah, egalitarianism happened. Damn.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Super Double Secret Major Sporting Event Appreciation Society

We managed to get to a soccer match the other day. Now before you go wondering what kind of schedule a family on sabbatical could possibly have that would keep them from seeing even one soccer game in ten months, you should know that soccer here is like one of those flash rave parties they used to have in my 20s. You know, it would be in some warehouse one week, and in an empty parking garage the next, and they would only hand out flyers to certain people and let news spread by word of mouth. Same here; you have to be "on the inside" to know when a game will be.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Fish upstream from here

Sorry, but once the scatological humor starts, I just can't stop my inner 12-year-old boy. I ran across this picture from a bit ago I should have included in my earlier post about pollution.

A former sanitation worker doing a double-take, I'm sure

Monday, September 12, 2011

You government, get off my lawn!

My mom was recently here for a visit, and she commented that Ecuador is essentially what the Tea Partyers want--a very unregulated system where just about anything goes. And even though Mom calls herself libertarian these days, it was both a jab a the Tea Party and an expression of distaste of Ecuadorian chaos.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Waiter, there's a poop on my plate

I'm an environmentalist. Of course according to polls all Americans consider themselves environmental. But I actually got paid for it, so, ha, I win.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Summer" camp

I swear one day I'll write a "when the First World isn't" post, explaining why the difference in the worlds is really categorical and useful for economic textbooks, rather than any individual's daily life or experience. Upon learning of our plans for Ecuador, one (very successful, highly-educated, intelligent) friend asked, "Do they have flush toilets?" So perhaps an easy way to understand the worlds is to say, yes they have very nice flush toilets here (many even wash your bum with a warm, soothing...oops, too far). But the difference is that there are many people here who do not have them. So one of the measures to measure your country's world level is flush toilets per capita, but the lack of flush toilets affects me personally as much here as it does back in the States; that is to say, not at all. Now, I said all that to say this: They have "summer camps" here just like we have at home!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

Time management

We have seen a fair enough bit of Ecuador outside this province of Azuay where we live (though certainly not enough). But we have neglected too much our surrounding area where it is so easy to explore. So we set off on a Saturday to see the wee hiking and hat weaving mecca of Principal. Of course this was just an overnighter, and we thought we'd come back the way we were supposed to have come in the first place, through the jewelry mecca of Chordeleg. Turns out for the sheer sake of dramatic crescendo this was a great way to go.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Principal peace

Gettin' all pink and serious
Diana's godson is staying with us for half a year or so (more on that later), so we now have a live-in babysitter. So after another too good date-night on Friday, we still managed to get out of town on Saturday, if a wee later than planned, for an overnight. We went to the little town of Principal, which is about two hours by bus, and about the same with a bus/cab combo. Due to some confusing language in the guidebook, we went a town too far to catch a connecting bus to our destination.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Birthdays in Ecuador

The Thunderdome
Remember Chuck-E-Cheez? Lots of really crappy pizza, video games, and play places that were so coated in foam and blanketed by rules that you couldn't possibly hurt yourself, and were therefore no fun whatsoever? They have that here in Ecuador, only without all the fun-killing safety precautions.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Art tour of Ecuador

Many people are familiar with the art, if not the name, of probably the most famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín. He's reproduced here like a Wal-Mart picture frame photo. But the difference here is that the reproductions are done by hand, and perfectly. So even though Ecuador has its creative talents, it has far more technical artistic talent. What that means is that it has both rare and great under-appreciated art, and great reproduction art. Or said differently, it has really cheap, great art and also really great, cheap art. Here's a sampling of some of it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trapped In My Head

I have written before about the frustrations here when there is absolutely, clearly, easily a better way to do things. Though "you'd think..." still escapes our lips, we are at least only now bemused, rather than frustrated. But just because I can accept these things doesn't mean I can stop thinking about how it could possibly be that better ways are there, everyone knows about them, but nobody does them. I know, its culture, but why? Whyyyyyy!?

I was talking to gringa lady about the paradoxical tendency of people here to be wonderful, generous, kind, warm, etc. and still pick your pocket. It seems to we gringos that Ecuadorians take advantage of every opportunity presented to them with no moral consideration. I insist that there is just something that, we new to the culture, simply can't yet understand and that we should at least withhold judgement. She disagreed. Morals are morals. Right is right; wrong is wrong.

Then she gave a contrasting example of how we are familiar with doing business: We Americans will charge as much as we think we can for something or get as much out of a business arrangement within reason (italics mine, since people don't generally talk in italics). Here, she says, the within reason brakes are off. But that's the thing, isn't it? Within reason. Who's reason? What reason? And wouldn't any Ecuadorian agree that's exactly what they are doing? They're not killing the other guy to get all his money, just what they can out of the business transaction at the moment.

"What the market will bear"; "buyer beware"; "it's only business" (it's nothing personal that I'm getting as much as I can out of you)...all phrases most Americans know and accept as legitimate. And in Ecuador subsistence is the goal (not a new flat screen TV or $200 sneakers), so is it much of a stretch to see where a culture of "I take care of me; you take care of you" could develop?

So, fair enough, we continue to recognize our cultural bias and not judge Ecuadorians by our standards. But it still bugs me as to why, when better solutions are apparent, those solutions aren't quickly and eagerly embraced. But I've had an epiphany, an understanding of my own cultural bias that might explain why I have so much trouble understanding their cultural bias.


The United States is unique in that our system of governance, social mores and norms, even our land use practices, evolved along with our culture, rather than being the latest installment of governance laid over an old and stubborn culture.

Take Europe, for example, or even just France. What is called France is really a foundation of a culture that existed well before the current democratic government. The surviving customs and mores and whatnot even predate the political entity called France. Trying to change much in France and Europe is like trying to put the stone chips back on the statute and starting over again.

In the States, however, our cultural origins don't predate written language. Change, strange though it may seem to say, was the foundation of our existence. The capacity for change was built into our system. A vast continent ripe for settling and exploitation, rapid technological advancement (yes, even in 1780), and the vast new global marketplace all contributed to a nation and culture that not only embraced change but was defined by it.

Just about anywhere else in the world, change has historically meant more challenge than opportunity and cultures were defined by that reality. And whether or not it remains true, the force of cultural influences prevents rapid change, rational or not.

End epiphany.

Good god, is this really what happens to our heads when we're not worried about work and soccer practice? I don't get many comments on this blog, but all that I just said above is some pretty far-flung speculation. If I don't get any input on this one I'm gonna think I'm the only nutcase out here not just relaxing over a beer at the Inca Lounge.


Oh, all right…Pilsner Grande, por favor. No glass.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The man behind the curtain

Of course we met a magician the other day who is threatening my godlike stature among the flock.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dulce bomb

What supposedly constitutes a good diet and a poor one have changed in my lifetime as many times as I've decided to try to eat better. No, wait, they've changed more than twice. What nine out of ten doctors have always agreed on, though, is that a diet high in simple and processed sugars is bad. Filling up with calories, without regard to nutrition, bad. Diabetes, rotten teeth, paunchy guts, annoying children, Valentine's Day...a litany of horrors. And with continued warnings from serious people in lab coats, North Americans have begun to cut back on sugar and deep fried donut-bunned triple cheeseburgers in favor of...lower calorie chemicals (baby steps, baby steps). So when the North American rats jump ship, what's a manufacturer to do? Set sail for the Third World, of course.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Paradise Is…Being Lost

"I was walking along looking for something, and then suddenly I wasn't anymore."
(A slight misquote of Winnie the Pooh)

On our recent trip to the Yunguilla Valley we had a bit of an unplanned side trip. We told the bus driver that we were looking for swimming pools in the valley (there are loads there). After a half hour from Girón the bus stopped and he signaled that this is where we wanted to be. We hopped off the dusty, empty side of the road and stood waiting for the bus to move on to see what awaited us on the other side of the road.

Turned out, more dust and emptiness awaited. I picture it as a scene in some National Lampoon movie: the bus drives away in a swirl of dust, revealing drowsy kids lethargically taking in the scene, holding the hands of their parents, who are themselves looking up the road, looking down it, cocking their heads to see around a corner, puzzled looks on their faces, wondering if there is a Spanish word that means "barren spot as far from water or anything else as possible" that sounds a lot like the word for swimming pool.

After staring around dumbly for a bit, we walked in the direction the driver had grunted. There was a dirt drive of sorts off the main road with a beat up old sign that said something or other was just one kilometer down the road. Before even that long we could see a large pool and recreation are down one side of the ridge we were walking along. Perfect. You just never can tell what back roads in Ecuador will lead to some hidden and treasure. So proceeding with that below on our left, we descended the steep road.

Our first indication that we might have wanted to turn around was finding the sign for the something or other referred to in the sign at the entrance. It was weathered and old and was on a locked gate with overgrowth. But there that pool was below us still…albeit a wee bit more behind and to the left than before. So, carry on, sally forth, buck up, and all that. I was led on several times by what looked like it could be a turn in the road back the other direction towards the first pool, or by another resort-looking building ahead.

Running into some campesinos doing some work just off the road I used my pool word, "piscina?" "Peshina. Dusty place in the middle of nowhere? Sí, keep not that side road, the one you're on. That'll take you there. Sí, sí.

Ten minutes later down the road we also inquired of a pickup truck coming up the hill. "Piscina? No, you're headed to a dusty place in the middle of nowhere. back where you came from, gringo. Get in the back and we'll take you back out."

As we started to bump along I thought I caught a glimpse, just a bit further down the road, of a big pile of bones with tennis shoes and baseball caps scattered about. Weird. But we got back to the main road and realized that had we walked about 20 more feet on the main road we'd have seen the big sign around the corner for Agua y Sol resort and pool.

Diana and I have both gotten good and lost many times in our travels and have learned (though we often forget) that the world can be suddenly different with an unexpected switching of tracks. Your usually dominant analytical, planning right brain gets a bit back on its heels and your sensual, experiential left brain gets to enjoy time behind the wheel for awhile (if you can just shut that right brain up in the passenger seat: "can we just stop for directions already!")

"I'm not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost." -Pooh

Getting lost is a good way to check your headspace now and again. If you're lost and fretting or stressed, consider whether you are generally consumed by what you want rather than what you've got. We sacrificed a little bit of pool time for our detour, but we were really proud of the kids trooping ever onward without complaint (a rare and golden moment in our hiking annals). We were treated to jaw-dropping views of the valley and got to spend a little quality family time just strolling along. Besides, the pool was too cold.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Stuck Like Glue

When we were back in Vail we spoke with a couple who were from Mexico and Spain and had their kids in the local school with our kids. So they were essentially doing in Vail what we were planning on doing in Ecuador (albeit with mucho mas dinero). We asked how the experience had been for them, and among the comments they made was, "It has really brought the family closer together." It's the life raft approach to family togetherness.

And we have found that when you throw kids into a foreign culture where they don't speak the language, have no other friends or family outside our walls, don't recognize anything around them, don't "get" the food, are stunned by the sound and fury of the city, they tend to cling to their parents and each other like they're under zombie attack.

Piper and Duncan always got on pretty well, so it's hard to make a real clinical conclusion that they are closer now than they might have been at home. But they certainly do spend more time together and play together a lot more than they'd have been able to at home. For one thing, they don't spend as much time during the day in school (and apart from each other) because here we don't have jobs that require their absence until 5pm.

The downsides we see are mostly for Duncan. He'll break into howls of anguish at the least physical discomfort. We wonder if he had more boy time—wrestling, whacking, poking each other in the eyeballs with sticks, etc.—if he wouldn't learn that pain is mostly mental and beating the crap out of each other can be great fun. And of course girls, the less physical and aggressive sex, have developed other, less overt strategies for influencing their world—namely psychological torture. Piper uses her two year advantage on Duncan, along with her beguiling feminine ways to lead him around like a kitten on a leash. We tell the kids that hitting isn't good, but then we see poor Dunc frustrated with Piper's mental manipulation, the poor guy is clearly finding himself as if in battle wearing just his underpants with a spork in one hand. It's just not a fair fight, but he doesn't know to do anything yet but feel helpless. It won't be till adulthood that he realizes he might rather have just had a brother bash him on the head and be done with it. Time will tell.

And Piper is already a natural loner. She's always been content in the corner of the playground, climbing things other kids can't and living in her own imagination. Creatively independent? Emerging sociopath? Again, time will tell, but when your experience in a foreign culture depends much upon your ability and willingness to engage your foreign hosts, she stands at a clear disadvantage there.

But no matter the downsides, it's hard to imagine that we'd ever look back on this experience as anything but great for family togetherness.

Of course a parent's gotta worry about something. Do you think...I dunno, are they becoming...a little too dependent on each other?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A jolly holiday

So far we have done more exploring around Ecuador than we have around Cuenca itself. It always seems the easiest things to discover are the last as well. So we recently decided to remedy that with some day and weekend trips.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Chewing Your Tongue: Learning Another Language

One of the things I learned as a psychology major in college was that the brain consumes calories like any other organ—much more when it's doing lots of work, almost none when its watching America's Got Talent.

The first time I noticed this firsthand was years ago watching my niece and nephew for a weekend, ages three and five at the time . I remember having previously talked with my sister who said she was exhausted every night from the kids. I thought, right, from doing what? The kids, of course, were running around like free electrons, but she wasn't chasing them around all day or wrestling or anything else particularly active.

Then that first day of watching them I got them down for bed at 8pm, sat down for some Me time in front of the TV, turned on the TV…and was asleep before the TV had warmed up.
I have kids of my own now and can attest to the brain sucking qualities of the little angels at that age when they require constant vigilance. And so it is with language learning at the beginning. I believe you can actually gauge your progress in learning a language by how long it takes before you just want to step off the metaphorical racetrack and fall to your knees. " guys...keep going...I'm just going a litt...braAAAAAppp."

When we first got here neither of us could comfortably go more than 20 or 30 minutes before our brains would actually start to hurt so much that we just wanted to drop them into a nice, warm bubble bath for a long soak. But the brain is a diva. It really just gives up and shuts down under this duress, leaving your tongue and mouth to wrestle mushily around together, leaderless and embarrassing. We looked like we were doped up and chewing on our tongues. Or at least we felt that way.
Just last night, after a two-hour visit with our downstairs neighbors talking Spanish, Diana was lamenting that she could sure use a breakthrough or milestone to tell her she's been progressing. But as I look back on it now, that's it—2 hours of embarrassing ourselves in a foreign language without our brains feeling exhausted. Triumph!

Now, we could probably even be past the embarrassment right now had we more language interaction. That was difficult the last six months in our last home in the campo (the country). The critical thing there is not just country mumbling—we are gringos and therefore automatically get a free pass to a high class. The reflexive shyness and deference makes the campesinos, particularly younger ones, bow their heads and buzz like bees (to our ears, anyway) instead of speak.

Language classes were also tough to commute to from out in the sticks, but we used the Rosetta Stone computer program, which is good but still needs the supplement of real people for practice.

So after 8 months grilling on Spanish here are my recommendations on learning a language (and just because I have learned it, doesn't mean it's right or true.):
  1. Spend at least two hours a day, six days a week learning the language (software, classes, etc.)
  2. Spend 30-60 minutes a day speaking with a representative* native speaker
* For example, we are most likely to be talking with urban, sierra folk, not country folk or coastal folk, who speak differently enough that urban Cuencanos have trouble understanding them. So we are not seeking those others out while learning.
Other tips
  • Watch TV or movies in the language with the subtitles for the language on (both listening and reading in the language at the same time). Soap operas are particularly good, if you can stomach them, as they speak clearly and slowly with lots of pauses (for close up, fade-out shots of distraught heroines).
  • Listen to talk radio in the language.
  • Read the newspaper
If you stick to that discipline (which we didn't upon first landing) I believe you could learn many of the common Western languages in six months. Up the daily to four hours and I think you could learn any language in the world in three months.

Next up, Arabic. Honey, pack 'em up…We're movin' to Yemen!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Idle Hands: Making Use of All This Extra Time

We are loving living again in the city. "What were we thinking?" is Diana's occasional utterance as she walks back from the market or looks at our beautiful view of the city, or takes the kids for a stroll to one of many parks near us.

I know what we were thinking: the city is noisy, smelly, busy, etc., and the country is quiet, tranquil, peaceful, etc. All true. But particularly without a car and many of the resources we take for granted back home (e.g. other English speakers), one finds oneself with too much idle mind time. Now besides symptoms of this, such as referring to oneself as "oneself", you might think that this is exactly what a sabbatical is meant to provide.

But it is important to remember that having more free time as a goal of a sabbatical really just means that you have more control of your time, not that you spend it in a hammock sipping spritzers. Anthropologists and historians note that the great development of civilization became possible when we had created more leisure time for ourselves (by farming). But leisure time means only that you don't have to spend every waking hour on subsistence or defense. It doesn't mean sitting in a hammock sipping spritzers. More appropriately it might mean imagining how you might create a life in which you might be able to spend more time in a hammock sipping spritzers, and then having the time to create that life.

There was a New York Times article from late last year, just as we were getting into this sabbatical, reporting research on happiness (it's good and short and I hope you read it). The research found that daydreaming, the quintessence of idleness, actually makes us less happy than its apparent opposite, intense focus on a task.

Notwithstanding their obvious finding that sex is number one on the list of happy-inducing focus, you might have supposed that daydreaming your virtual self in a hammock while your actual self sits in front of your computer would make you happier than doing the work yourself is sitting there to do. Or maybe you wouldn't. Buddhists have been going on for millennia about desire being the root of all suffering.
We certainly found ourselves in the campo (the country) with all that hammock time and at least an hour of travel round trip (for all but urgent needs) from many things we might need in order to be industrious. We spent much of our time planning sorties into the city to get something we need in order to do something else, or daydreaming about what we might do if we had a car or could walk to a park or a museum or cafe.

Don't let me make this a complaint about our last six months in a big, beautiful house in a tranquil setting. It is, rather, an emphasis on how happy we are to be city people right now (much to my surprise), and maybe a reminder to be industrious with your own time. When in doubt about what to do to be focused, see (and do) example number one from the researchers' list.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Conversations at a Dinner Party: The Curious Character of Expats

Just some of the snippets of conversation that I happened to hear or be part of at a recent party at the home of some friends:

- The retired CIA agent talking to the quantum spiritualist about tesseracts.

- The entrepreneur (and motivational speaker, author, investment-expert, Crohn's Colitis expert, concert promoter, business development consultant…) speaking with the expat chiropractor about global economic policy, fiat currency collapse, and precious metal investing.

- The marketing director/community advocate talking with the independently wealthy, 31-year-old, juvenile ex-con/investment consultant about cosmological influence upon human lives and affairs.

- The same marketer/advocate talking with the maid about her family and life in Cuenca as it has been for her and those like her over the past 50 years.

- The nonprofit manager/environmentalist/politician talking with the astrologist (who is also the 31-year investment consultant) about the lack of access to fresh water faced by much of the world and how to solve the fundamental causes of these problems.

- The life coach talking to the Ecuadorian and her Welsh husband about the trilogy she's writing on the world after the Great Turning as told to her from spiritual entities she channels.

So I have wondered, upon arriving in Cuenca, how is it that we are meeting so many remarkable characters with such amazing stories? Is it that leaving one's own country (said "comfort zone") for another heightens the remarkable nature inherent in all of us? Or is it that to leave one's own country is not so remarkable for those already living a life less ordinary?

Perhaps it is a bit of both. In order to leave your comfort zone, you must already have a level of courage, motivation, or experience that will get you to take that first step. But if you have made the move and embraced it, then perhaps you will be more open to being fundamentally changed by the experience, such that you develop a greater capacity to "grow".

Or maybe moving to a foreign country is just plain weird and all these people (all of us people) are just plain weird. Ahh, that's a lot easier and doesn't hurt my head so much. We'll go with that answer.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Your girl in the campo

We experimented with having a household employee a little while back. You know, this semi-retired life can be pretty taxing, what with the trips to exotic places, playing in parks, leisurely strolls through museums, long conversations over coffee.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Sum of Our Possessions

This is almost everything we own in Ecuador, including food.

It is notable both for how little it is and how much it is.

We came here with six suitcases and backpacks. That original volume represents about half what you see above. (What you don't see above are an oven and a 10-gallon gas tank we had to buy while at this house, but that we are selling to the owners of the house.)

One of the early feelings from this trip was the liberating feeling of walking away from all our stuff. Did you ever have a breakup that was long overdue but that was "friendly"? During the conversation in his/her house/apartment that seems to take hours (and probably does), solemnity covers you like warm mud. There are long moments of silence, hugging and tears, dragging out for hours the actual break that really happened in the first 20 minutes of "the talk."

Then you finally do that last, too-long hug with no kiss at the front door, turn on your heels and hear the door shut. Presuming the door doesn't open again with a bursting sob (in which case you're back in the game for another two hours), it's that moment right there where you feel…the entire rest of your life beginning! You've heard the platitude before, but never have you truly realized that this moment is the first moment of the rest of your life. The entirety of your world is everything attached to your shoes and no more. You are limited only by your own capacity to be bold, creative, adventuresome. And so you call your buddy for a drink and a ball game or to go shopping.

That feeling when the door shut, with all our stuff on the other side of it (crammed in one side of our attic, causing our house to settle to one side) was the first feeling of our entire journey, the champagne bottle breaking on the hull.

I'm sure it would have been different had we not known that we would return to our stuff eventually. But the thought at least of living independently of everything but ourselves was liberating, exhilarating, and anxious in the way anything a little terrifying is.

Because, you see, stripping away your material world has some unexpected revelations and effects. You realize how much your mental landscape is shaped by your physical one. Your comfy chair. Your favorite coffee/tea cup. Your fuzzy slippers. Your sunny corner of the house. The junk drawer in the kitchen (where twist ties and maybe-not-dead batteries go). You are left alone with no excuse to fix something, or read that important article in that magazine, or rearrange, or buy something else, or clean out the junk drawer.

So the unexpected revelation may be that "what is really important" may have atrophied after all those years of "stuff" crutches. So just like real crutches, you should be ready for that wobbly period where your life legs have to get used to their job again. And be sure you've planned out some appropriate things for them to do to heal. Maybe not skiing the bumps just yet, but make sure you get them ready to do that.

Notice in that picture of our stuff again that, though to our Western eyes it may look like very little, it's volume has doubled in six months. It is a good reminder for us, not necessarily to not collect stuff, but rather to be sure that we own our stuff, not the other way round.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A sink with a view

After just one week having moved from el campo and becoming ciudad mice, here's what we're doing cheerleader jumps about:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The old hood in pictures

As we are preparing to depart the campo for the hustle and bustle of the city, I thought I'd give you an idea of what we'll be missing in the city by way of scenes from my jogs through the barrio.

We're at about 9,000 feet here, so I am compelled to slow my pace for the uphills, but that's also a nice reminder to stop (or slow) and take it all in.

Monday, May 23, 2011

This Cold House

I really shouldn't start it that way. Yes our modern mansion in the hills above Cuenca can be downright chilly, but we are not leaving it for that reason.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Best date night everrrrr

It has been more difficult than we had imagined to get good date nights here. Babysitting can be cheap, but up where we live hard to come by someone affordable we trust. Enter NanaBink. This is the name for the singular corpus that is Diana's parents. They were here for two weeks, and so we got some time for ourselves while the kids were in the safest hands imaginable. And so we had the...

(but, you know, with an echoey voice like you're selling a speedway event)