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 going...no 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. "No...you guys...keep going...I'm just going to...rest 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: