Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Planning...To Do Nothing

I have taken a great deal of time to announce this blog to friends, family, and others. That is for two very related reasons.

First, I needed to edit and make more blog-like, what I had started as an online journal. I had conflated the two things thinking that, as I was journaling about the experience anyway, I might as well do it in a blog that I could share. But a blog is a Web log, not a journal. There are personal thoughts that I really don't want to share, and, if you could read some of those raw thoughts, you'd thank me for cleaning them up and throwing some clothes on them before letting them out of the house.

Second, I have been going about this blog and the rest of my life since beginning this sabbatical purposelessly and achieving surprisingly little.

Those who have been reading this whole blog (hi mom!) may find this ironic, I know; I wrote a post earlier worrying about exactly this happening to us, and how to make sure it doesn't happen. But those of you who know Diana and me were already gasping in mock surprise before even starting this paragraph. Scattered and purposeless? The Scherrs? Perish the thought!

But as some may be reading this blog in consideration of doing what we're doing, I think I owe a peek into the personal journal on how we went rudderless for a time and how we may right ourselves again.

I have long considered there to be at least two types of travel. One is vacation—no explanation necessary. The other I just call "travel" for lack of a better word. Travel is not meant to be escape, downtime, relaxation, or any of the things we consider vacation. It is an experience to broaden our perception and knowledge. But something I have learned already in this experience is that mobile travel (not establishing roots in any place--the only kind of travel I have ever done) is like a classroom education; you sit there and absorb knowledge for later application. But settled travel (an extended stay in one place) is more internship; you have experience and knowledge, and now you must apply them. You don't get to just take it in, and you certainly don't watch it go by from a beach chair.

Our problem so far has been that we have not made practical our lofty goals of a stronger, more united family; rich cultural experience; exploring the natural environment; being more engaged in our kids' education; and closer community ties. When we first got here Di sent an e-mail to a friend describing the fun we were having exploring Cuenca with the kids but the nervous thought we still occasionally have of “what are we doing here?” Her reply was, "What do you mean? You're doing it!"

We were certainly doing, and that exploring is certainly part of achieving the purpose we're here for. But without also tangible objectives and strategies to achieve them we have dropped our boat in the water with a destination, but have no way to steer there. Yes, it sounds corporate and businessy, and seemingly what we intentionally left behind. But it begs the question, were our hectic lives back home more the result of too many demands and pressures, or just the same lack of steering we've had here? (See, I'm learning something already!)

More personally, to help you understand the consequences of this directionlessness beyond a lack of achievement, I'll tell you what brought us here today. Diana has been discouraged feeling that she has failed here even more than at home at "being a better wife and mom"—a personal goal of hers for our sabbatical. As these things often must, it reached the point of tears before we really started addressing the vibe pervading our family.

This goal is a great example of how a lofty goal is nothing without some meat on its bones. How, exactly, does one become a better wife and mother? First, of course, one must either be or become female. Umm, check. Got that one. Next? Umm...? Uhhh...?

Right. But does anyone who knows Diana think she is failing at being a good wife and mother? And is she not achieving things here as a wife and mother? She has braved chaotic markets of strange and unusual foodstuffs, created new meals with them without instruction, connected with other families to provide friends for the kids, hunted down and killed elusive creature comforts for our gringo family. But are the thanks and praises from her family not enough measure of her success? We will let the knowing harrumphs from the wives and mothers in the audience answer that question.

And for me, getting this blog "out" is just one of my measurable failures (really, what the hell else do I have to do?). So this morning we established that we are not bad people, just bad planners—something much more correctable. So today we have scheduled our first family planning and therapy session. If you hear more on the subject, things will have gone well. If you don't, enjoy the terse descriptions of the beautiful scenery for the next year and a half.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Today Is All About Livin'

Kids consume the world around them like it’s a hotdog-eating contest. When you see parents looking frantic, it’s often not from a list of things to do or appointments to keep; it’s from running out of "hotdogs" and desperately trying to think of where to get more before the choruses of “Mom, mom, mom, mom…Mom, mom, mom...Daaad?...where’s mom...I’m bored!” result in the terrible and untimely deaths of our precious children.

So what did we think when we thought it would be great to spend more time with the kids, that hotdogs would rain from the sky? It has been great to spend more time with the kids; don’t get me wrong. But it continues to be a great deal of mental work to keep them busy and engaged. We are some of those white people you’ve heard about who don’t have TV at home, and while we’re sure the kids would still stare at a television no matter what language comes out, we haven’t yet turned the TV on. So after exasperated expressions of “Enough of this walking business!” (Piper), yawns at museums and cathedrals, and several occasions of nonviolent protest (body slackened, refusing to go anywhere), we have got to find more hotdogs!

Every (living) parent has their own reserve stash of hotdogs when all else fails. One of our best is swimming. The offer is never declined, eyes never roll, the kids know the preparation drill and perform it like it’s an air raid. And so to discover that the only pools in Cuenca are athletic pools (not for playing) is to discover, when you pull the cord, that you strapped on your backpack instead of your parachute.

After asking around like begging for alms, “Do you know of any swimming pools?” we finally decided it was time to visit the suburb of Cuenca called Baños (not to be confused with a more famous resort town of the same name). It hadn’t occurred to us, since it is an area of natural thermal springs and so presumably more therapeutic resort than playground. And it’s also on the edge of Cuenca.

But we forget that recreational hot springs exist everywhere. Glenwood Springs, just down the road from Vail, is a famous one, and it’s just a frothing vat of ebullient, sloshing humanity. And we have still been getting used to the scale of the city. Despite knowing rationally how small Cuenca is, Baños is just off the map, giving us the sense that it’s...well, off the map. But it is still just a 30-minute, 50-cent bus ride.

Showers -- not actual volcanoes

So we took the plunge, and the first of the many pools we came to was the one most highly recommended for quality. At $30 for the family, Piedre de Agua is a pretty pricey hotdog, particularly for Ecuador. But every parent knows those times when you’re willing to simply hand over your wallet and say take what you need, just give us hotdogs.

After discovering this place, we now know where Mommy and Daddy are coming for a date afternoon, and upon further walking around Baños we discovered the places better for the kids (no need to buy a fancy kielbasa for a hotdog aficionado) at $8 or less for the whole family.

Besides wet play for the kids, the water in Baños is milky white from dissolved minerals, and soothing for grown-ups. And Piedre de Agua is an exception to a general sense of deterioration or half-finished state of much of Ecuador, which itself provides some mental comfort.

After a relaxing Sunday afternoon being softened into jelly by hot mineral water, no one was much use for cooking. The downside of taking starving kids out to eat here, however (the hotdogs are only metaphorical, after all), is that they have not much taken to the food yet. We were fortunate enough, though, to chance upon a pizza place that had good pizza and a little play place for the kids (this combination is indeed rare and a very lucky find). The pizza deal also included apple soda, another luxury we typically deny our poor children.

Sitting back in her chair, chewing on a slice, looking at the pizza in one hand and apple soda in the other, and presumably reliving the day at the pool in her mind, Piper says to no one in particular, “Yeah, this is livin’ baby!”

The restaurant

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Nuevo Año

I have believed since my young life when I kept failing to kiss some hot, eligible girl at midnight that New Year’s Eve is the most overblown holiday there is. You pay five times as much to get into any bar you normally go to that’s now overcrowded, noisy, and sweaty for the privilege of a plastic cup of cheap champagne at midnight. But I had never experienced New Year’s in Ecuador.