Wednesday, August 23, 2017

On the Mend

Abundant appreciation to the many kind friends who reached out to us during Cynthia's recent health scare. I wanted to update everyone that she is doing great. We normally think twice before taking an ibuprofen tablet so it's been weird for her to be on a schedule for multiple medications each day. The good news is she has had no adverse reaction to any of them and within a few weeks she'll only need the anticoagulant once a day.

Throughout this whole ordeal a nagging problem has been a pain in her side. It was discovered through a more specialized examination of the CT scan that when she lost consciousness and fell she fractured a rib! Good grief. I suffered a similar injury playing football and know there's nothing you can really do except take pain medication and let your body do its thing regarding healing. Without complete range of motion she's not yet back to full strength but is definitely on the mend.

A number of you have inquired how my face turned out. The joke around here is that if Cynthia's problem had occurred a couple of weeks earlier they would have immediately put me on a gurney when we showed up in the emergency room. "Oh my god, this gringo set his face on fire!!"

Honestly I couldn't be more pleased with the outcome. My skin looks so pink and fresh with next to no blotches or discoloration, even on top of my head. Appearance aside, it feels fantastic to know that at least from the neck up I have zero potential skin cancer lurking. I'll post a pic of our smiling faces soon.

So the mood is upbeat in Casa Staton. Between the two of us it's been a rough couple of months but we've both overcome our challenges and are excited about the future!

Thanks again for the remarkable support you have given. Our hearts are filled with gratitude.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Believe in Miracles

It's amazing how life can sometimes change in the blink of an eye. My last post described a lovely walk through the neighborhood. Two days later all hell broke loose.

Cynthia was experiencing shortness of breath on Tuesday but we didn't think much about it because she had had a couple of similar episodes since we returned to Ecuador in July. We figured probably more altitude adjustment. After she got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and lost consciousness we were in the emergency room at the IESS (Ecuador's national health care system) hospital first thing Wednesday morning.

After a l-o-n-g day and many tests an echocardiogram found a blood clot in the right side of her heart. A CAT scan found another on the left side. The official term for this condition is bilateral pulmonary embolism. Then an ultrasound of the leg where she had previously had a clot nine years ago revealed a third in her groin. The level of apprehension and stress we felt were beyond description.

Our dear friend and personal physician Dr. Pablo Parra quickly took charge of her care. She was immediately given anticoagulant injections, oxygen, and pain meds. Because of all the monitoring and medications being administered she was placed in a private room--a luxury since patients in IESS are normally in triples.

There has been concern recently in the expat community about IESS. I can tell you Cynthia received world class treatment that greatly contributed to saving her life.

I'm thrilled to report that after a week of excellent care Cynthia is doing great and was discharged this afternoon. She has now switched to oral anticoagulant medication for the next six months or more. There was no damage to her heart and she'll be able to resume normal activities as her strength improves in the coming days.

This whole episode is really a miracle and we feel so blessed considering the circumstances. We will be eternally grateful for the kind and professional care she received.

Please send healing thoughts and prayers her way as Cynthia continues to recover from this terrifying episode.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Sunday Stroll

So far we've had to "endure" our winter for a stretch of only about ten days. During that short period constantly overcast skies kept the temps uncomfortably chilly. How chilly? Our bedroom registered 58 degrees several mornings. Thank goodness for the heated mattress pad!

Maybe there will be another nippy week or two but in the meantime Cynthia and I have resumed our pleasant Sunday strolls. We've created an hour or so walk that takes us beside the Yununcuay river, down lovely Solano Avenue, then along a beautiful street in our neighborhood called Luis Morena Mora before returning home. After gazing on my gruesome mug shots the past few weeks I thought you'd enjoy seeing something more enjoyable. So come along with us on yesterday's outing.

Remember, we live in the "Land of Eternal Spring." Even when we have occasional periods with lower temps the flowers continue to bloom.




Here's the closest representation of what you consider winter that I could find.


Our walk begins along the Yununcuay less than five minutes from our apartment.


It's so peaceful here, and the views are spectacular.


Sometimes the path takes us beside massive eucalyptus trees.


A new food truck park has opened near Solano Ave. Cuenca's getting hip!!



Solano Avenue is normally very busy, but Sunday is family day here so roads are almost deserted.


We always pass by a couple of Sunday flea markets. Don't think they have much we'd be interested in----



Yesterday we popped into a mercado to see if we could find pumpkin seeds for the granola Cynthia makes.


The fresh food area wasn't very busy, but the "food court" was doing brisk business.


Success! That dinky 2 ounce bag from Supermaxi costs about $3. We bought the 10 ounce bag on the right for $4.


Sunday after church is a popular time for families to eat out. This is an upscale al fresco seafood restaurant on Luis Morena Mora.


Here are a couple of shots just to show you a bit of what our neighborhood looks like. A lovely new condo building


And the mature trees and landscaping add so much to the visual appeal


Looks like a motorcycle club decided to dine at the nearby Mexican eatery.


Back home after a pleasurable walk. Thanks for joining us!




Sunday, August 6, 2017

The End Is Near!

Recently if you were to say that I'm a little flaky I would readily agree with you. Should you comment that I've really got sex a-peel I'd appreciate the compliment. For the past three days I've been shedding skin from my face at a rate that would make a snake jealous. The deep red blotches are now more like a blush, and the godawful pain is no mas.

In short, I'm coming to the end of the month-long ordeal I put myself through, and the results will be well worth the trouble. Here are photos to review the journey I've shared with you:

Three weeks ago (don't look very happy, do I?).


Last week.




Damn it, those look rough! And, tah dah, here's today.




Not perfect yet, but I hope you agree it's a remarkable improvement in only a few short days!

The purpose of me posting these photos the past few weeks has been neither to gross you out nor suggest you take on this regimen yourself. What I've put myself through is unarguably radical and not for everyone.

I do encourage you to be proactive regarding your health. I've never understood why many people take better care of their vehicles than their own bodies. They'll be sure to keep the oil changed and make sure the tires are rotated, balanced, and properly inflated. Yet they avoid visits to the doctor and dentist and ignore common wisdom regarding their weight and fitness.

As far as your skin goes, think about scheduling that dermatologist appointment or at least be sure to apply a quality sunscreen. And now is as good a time as any to get serious about nurturing the "vehicle" (your body) that carries you through this life.

Thanks so much for all your support this past month. The love and encouragement you freely shared with me meant more than you know.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Red Lobster Comes to Cuenca

***WARNING: WORSE THAN LAST TIME***

No, not the restaurant chain, silly. I'm talking about me.

This recent exchange says it all:

Friend: "Damn, dude, that's the worst sunburn I've ever seen."

Me: "That's because you're looking at every sunburn I've ever had all at the same time."

Last night marked three weeks into my treatment for sun damage. I applied the fluorouracil ointment for the 21st time and once again it felt like I had set my face ablaze. I got into bed and said to Cynthia, "I don't know if I can keep doing this." When water from the shower striking my face this morning made me wince in pain I decided it was time to pull the plug.

The maximum recommended length of time for this treatment is 30 days, so anybody who knows me also knows that was my goal. As one of my readers said in an email, "You go big or go home." In spite of the pain I could have continued but I'm ready to start healing and get on with my life. I'm sure what I've gone through will go a long ways toward removing most if not all of the pre-cancerous skin growth.

Beyond the obvious shock of how extensive my sun damage turned out to be came some smaller surprises along the way. I was concerned that I wasn't going to be able to shave. And between my head and face I've got a lot of real estate to maintain.

You've never seen me with hair and a beard, and you never will for a very good reason. Both look terrible. So the thought of having this surface-of-Mars face and cranium covered with a scraggly coat of gray fur was more than I--and Cynthia--could bear. Fortunately, as long as I take my time, shaving hasn't been an issue.

A real surprise has been some unexpected spots where sun damage has revealed itself to be lurking. Like in the nooks, crannies, and creases of my ears of all places. Thinking back that's probably not an area where I always diligently strived for 100% sunscreen coverage. A couple of open, bleeding wounds tells me that was a bad idea. Ugh.

And it's a complete mystery why the skin on my face right next to my nose is freaking out. No way I missed putting sunscreen there.

So as we say goodbye to my active treatment phase, here's my full face photo from the previous post followed by ones taken today:










Anybody blame me for stopping? Good. I'm not sure what to expect next so I'll update you in a few days. Thanks so much for the many emails and Facebook messages, my friends.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To Hell and Back

***WARNING---THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES***

"What in the world happened to your face?!?!"

I've been getting that a lot recently. And will continue to for the next several weeks.

Was I in an accident? A fight?

Based on the way I look those are both reasonable guesses. But, no, my current monstrous appearance is of my own doing.

Let's back up. I've diligently taken care of my skin for the past 30+ years--cleansing, moisturizing, applying sunscreen. Even occasional facials and microdermabrasion treatments. Since we moved to the land of intense equatorial sun I've been extra careful to never leave the house without first applying SPF 50.

Ah, but in my younger days it was quite a different story. I can remember those sunburns at the beach that were too painful to touch. The baby oil and iodine summers at the pool going for the darkest tan line possible. In college I once made a reflecting contraption out of cardboard and aluminum foil to intensify those rays to the absolute max. Geez----.

And of course, for almost four decades now I've had this shaved head. No matter how careful I am, without a hat on out in the sun that thin skin stretched across my skull is like frying bacon.

Over the years I've spent a lot of time in dermatologists' offices for checkups and maintenance. There have been countless freezings of troublesome spots with liquid nitrogen and three instances when basal cell carcinomas had to be surgically removed. Last spring my doctor recommended that I apply fluorouracil for a week to treat a few scaly areas on my scalp. I followed his instructions and the ointment worked.

Fluorouracil is a topical cream or gel used to treat pre-cancerous and cancerous skin growths. It works by killing fast-growing cells such as the abnormal ones in actinic keratoses and basal cell carcinoma. These cells are drawn to the skin's surface and eliminated from the body.

I recently noticed more of these spots had appeared and decided to repeat the treatment. But before doing so I this time did some Internet research and learned that instead of only a week, the recommended period of application was a month.

OK, then, a month it is. You've seen plenty of photos of me over the years. Overall I felt like my skin looks pretty darned good, so I decided while I was putting the ointment on my scalp I'd go ahead and take care of what little sun damage there might be on my forehead as well.

The first week of treatment nothing happened. Then, oh, my------. To say I was shocked with what happened next would be the understatement of the century. Are you ready for this? Here's the "minor" sun damage on my forehead today, 2 1/2 weeks into the regimen:












OMG, right? As soon as I saw what was happening I decided to extend the fluorouracil application to the lower half of my face as well. Here's what it looks like, a week behind the scalp and forehead:


Put those images together and here's my current frightful appearance:




However shocked you are viewing these images, I am even more so. Outwardly my skin looked so good I had no inkling of the damage that lurked below. Let me answer some of the questions I'm sure you have:

How long will the treatment last? For 30 days. So I'm on Day 17 on the top half and Day 10 on the bottom.

Does it hurt? Once the gel starts working it hurts like hell. Washing my face is painful. Putting on the ointment each night burns like I'm being hit with acid. I've sometimes been on the verge of tears and felt like stopping the treatment almost daily but continue because it's obvious the problem must be dealt with. Thankfully Cynthia remembered we have a container of Aquaphor that has honestly been my salvation. It soothes the inflammation and provides healing moisture to the dry, flaking skin. It feels like every sunburn I've had in my entire life is slowly emerging. Payback for all those foolish choices so long ago.

When will you look normal again? You will look normal again, won't you? Once I quit applying the fluorouracil I expect to look even worse for maybe the two following weeks. Then rejuvenation is supposed to happen rapidly and I'll end up with totally healthy skin for the first time since I was a child. Unfortunately the wrinkles stay----.

Are you glad you did it? Ask me when it's over. Seriously, I sure am. Yes, it's painful and, yes, I look horrible right now but I'm pleased to be doing something proactive that will ward off future potential problems. I've been in semi-seclusion during this ordeal but decided to "go public" and write this post to encourage you to be mindful of your own health. Skin cancer that turns into melanoma can kill you, folks. It's not something to fool around with.

I'll continue to post more pics of my progress as this journey evolves. Thanks in advance for your support, encouragement, and comments.





Monday, July 10, 2017

A Love Story


Two kids fell in love in the summer of 1967. From the start their romance was improbable and unconventional. He was a college freshman; she was a freshman in high school. No one except them gave the relationship much of a chance.

While classmates talked of sock hops and football games, they spent hours planning their future and spoke of growing old together. They patiently waited four years for their June graduations, exchanged vows a month later, and have been joyously married ever since.

Those two kids are Cynthia and me. Today is our 46th wedding anniversary and the amazing celebration of 50 years as a couple. We've grown up together, and now we indeed do have the privilege of growing old together.

Cynthia, my darling, I love you more deeply than words can express. We have an eternal, unbreakable bond that few could understand and even fewer will experience. Your presence has been my life's greatest treasure, and I only wish that time could grant me the honor of spending another fifty years by your side.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart. May we have many, many more.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

This Is Retirement??

We were catching up with local friends last night over dinner and they asked, "So what's been going on with you two since we last saw you?" I proceeded to rattle off the following:

"Well, at the beginning of May we went to Atlanta for an International Living conference.

Then, since I was born in Atlanta and we spent most of our adult lives there, we stayed over some extra days visiting family and friends. I'm missing my 50th high school reunion this fall so I organized a mini-reunion of classmates which was a blast."

Next we flew to New Jersey and stayed with our daughter and her family for three weeks. While there we took a train into Manhattan to visit friends who live in SoHo.

Before returning to Cuenca we took another train to Boston and enjoyed exploring that beautiful city for four days. Plus we discovered we really love train travel.

After being home only about two weeks we turned around and flew back to Quito for another IL conference, then hung around in the city a few days.

We flew home and spent the weekend before leaving for several glorious days in Yunguilla.

And now we're back in Cuenca."

Our dinner companions own several businesses and have young children so their lives are very different from ours. The husband seemed amazed and remarked, "Wow, you two are really busy for retired people!"

The truth is, yes we are. On purpose.

After this recent flurry of activity we have no set travel plans for awhile because we are working on a massive project that requires us to stay put and focus. That doesn't mean we'll be hermits. We cherish our relationships with close friends and look forward to socializing with them after being away so long.

I'm in no way knocking those who embrace a more reserved approach to retirement. Heck, if you feel like you've worked hard your whole life and just want to putter around, I say more power to you. We enjoy limited doses of chillaxin' ourselves, with our just-completed getaway to Yunguilla I mentioned serving as a perfect example.

We spent an extended 4th of July celebration with wonderful friends eating, drinking, sleeping, playing games, sunning ourselves (the weather is fabulous there--and only an hour away!), and hot tubbing. Sound like fun? It sure was!

Here are a few photos of our surroundings:

This is the view from our bedroom window


And here are a few from the deck looking down into the valley




Yes, this is retirement, Edd and Cynthia style.






Friday, June 30, 2017

Taking a Vacation from Our Vacation

To me there's a big difference between a "trip" and a "vacation." Taking a trip means you're out and about seeing and doing things. A vacation is more about kicking back and relaxing.

During our working years Cynthia and I most often chose the trip option. I especially tended to get antsy after a few days of hanging out, so even vacations ended up being filled with activities. In both cases we would return to the daily grind more exhausted than when we left.

Our move to Ecuador only slightly altered old patterns. We're living on a different continent, for gosh sakes, in a new country and city. So much exploring to do. Let's get busy!

And we've certainly seen and done a lot--cruises in the Galapagos and around the tip of South America; excursions along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, in the cloud forest of northern Ecuador, and up close and personal with humpback whales on the coast; adventures from hiking to horseback riding to zip lining.

There have been numerous vacations as well, but they've as in the past been less than totally relaxing. Last trip to the beach, for example, I found myself hang gliding along the Pacific coastline.

When we were booking flights to Quito for last weekend's International Living conference we decided to stay in town for a few days afterwards. There was some business to take care of on Monday, but beyond that we made no plans and figured we'd visit friends, museums, and the city's other attractions.

It hasn't worked out that way. In fact, since we got back to our living quarters Monday evening we haven't set foot outside the property except to eat lunches and dinners. And I'm writing this on Thursday afternoon before we head to the airport for our return flight to Cuenca.

What happened? Well, a lot of it has to do with the place we're staying. Friends who are developing a finca near Mindo offered us their residence here, and what a wonderful place it is. Make no mistake, Quito is a big, busy, noisy city. But their home, located only a couple of blocks back from "the action," is a peaceful oasis in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Although listed on Airbnb (check it out here), this is light years beyond the typical rental that feels like a sparse hotel room and mini-kitchen. The totally renovated space is a real home filled with artwork, books, decorative accessories, tasteful lighting, and exquisite furnishings.

We've been to Quito many times already so Tuesday we decided to stay put and recover from the rigors of the conference. Then Wednesday, well----. And now today, uh-----.

It's not like we've done absolutely nothing. Just almost nothing. Each day we've slept late, then sat out in the sunny patio with our morning coffee (Attention Cuenca expats: Quito has the weather you thought you would find in the southern highlands. While the additional altitude makes the evenings a little cooler, almost every day has been warm and sunny with blue skies.).

After breakfast we've done yoga before relaxing in the steam room (Wow, what an amenity!) and getting ready for the day--just in case there was something to be ready for. We ventured out a few blocks for lunch, and before you know it, time for a siesta. A little computer work, some chit chat, a glass or two of wine, and it's off for dinner. Taxi home, maybe another glass of wine, then early bedtime.

We often joke that going out of town is taking a vacation from our vacation, since expat life generally isn't particularly taxing. But this is maybe the first time ever that we've given ourselves permission to simply--be. No chores--no errands--no agenda. Nada.

I have to admit I don't know why I've felt the need to be so damned busy all these years, because the past few days have been transformative. I can't recall feeling simultaneously so invigorated and relaxed. Great news: after going home over the weekend we're off with friends on a three day 4th of July getaway in Yunguilla. And this time I'm told a hot tub overlooking the valley is involved.

Life may never be the same------.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Seven Year Itch?

The three most frequently asked questions I receive are, in order:

Why Ecuador/Cuenca?

What do you do all day?

Do you think you'll live in Cuenca forever?

Cynthia and I arrived here seven years ago last month, and I think I've done a pretty good job through this blog of answering the first two. Regarding the third one, my standard answer has always been, "I don't really think in absolute terms like 'forever.' But based on my life history (this being the fourth city of residence in the last 20 years), I'd say probably not."

It's been interesting to observe the dynamics of our expat population in Cuenca over the years. We were part of the initial wave of foreigners who arrived in 2010, and for the first few years the flow of expats defied the laws of nature--the tide always came in and never went out. I still remember vividly the shock when one of our first couple friends returned to the States after only about six months. They're leaving already?!? It was unthinkable.

We later learned that the average lifespan of an expat is 2-3 years before going back or moving on. And that is exactly what has happened here. Sure, new folks continue to show up, but their numbers are offset by others who are leaving. Every week in online publications there are posts for moving sales from people we never even got to meet.

There's no way to get an accurate count on Cuenca's expat population anymore. The immigration office knows exactly how many residency visas have been issued, but it is impossible to determine the number who are still here. Gosh, thinking back to the early days I realize that almost everyone we met from the "Class of 2010" is gone.

It also dawns on me that we've lived in this apartment longer than any other dwelling of our soon-to-be 46 years of marriage except the house in Atlanta we built and raised our children in. We were lucky to find it and all of the furniture we shipped fits perfectly, so why move?

Well, two reasons have slowly crept into our consciousness. As you know we travel internationally a lot, and dealing with the scheduling hassle of getting to Guayaquil or, usually, Quito with minimal layover and/or overnight stays has become increasing annoying. Since we plan to travel even more in the next 10-15 years it would be so much more convenient to live in a city with an international airport nearby.

Second, those four flights of steps in our building (plus another flight inside our apartment) weren't that big a deal seven years ago. As we continue to age and often go up and down them multiple times a day, let's just say the thought of having an elevator has crossed our minds. Particularly on grocery shopping day.

Does this mean we're out of here? No, not at all. But it does mean that as opposed to buying a car, which has never been considered, an occasional conversation about the subject now comes up. And I have to admit it's kind of fun to contemplate new possibilities. What besides an airport would be important to us in a new place? What features in a dwelling would we really like to have? Where else in the country, continent, or even world might be a great fit?

We've found this new topic of conversation so stimulating that we've even fantasized about the next "next"--what life could look like for us beyond the years of active travel. What kind of environment would we be looking for? What would we be doing?

Whether or not the details of any of these chats manifest is irrelevant. Something we've known intellectually for a long time has now become an essential aspect of our existence and a key element in all the blessings that have come our way since we stepped off the plane in Cuenca seven years ago.

Rather than obsess about minutia, we focus on a strong, solid general intention and then pay attention in the present moment to everything coming our way that supports that intention--a person--an article--a conversation. At first it took courage to not "be in control." Now we get out of our own way and simply let life unfold. The results have been so much better on every level.

As seasoned expats and travelers we have no trepidation about adjusting to life elsewhere. Since there's no sense of urgency about any of this, enjoyable flights of imagination over a glass of wine will continue. If and when the time feels right, perhaps we'll be motivated to take action.

One way or the other, our life continues to be an excellent expat adventure.








Thursday, June 8, 2017

Happenings in the 'Hood

We returned last night from a month-plus in the States to, as usual, an empty refrigerator and pantry. So my first order of business this morning was a visit to the Supermaxi to replenish our supplies.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping, which in this case is a big plus since there was so much shopping to do. And I love wandering through the neighborhood on my way to the store to report back to Cynthia all the changes since we left. This time I'd like to fill you in as well, followed by a few comments about my discoveries:

The food business next door has been renovating their rear outdoor space for ages. My best guess is a restaurant will be part of the operation eventually. We returned to two half-finished roof tile installations (a job that would take two focused guys one day to do).

The eyesore ladies clothing store up the street is now a bakery. Looking through the window it appears they offer the exact same products as a zillion other bakeries in town. (Sigh)

A pizza place under construction when we left has now opened, bringing the total to three within a few minutes walk.

There has been rapid progress on a new condo building nearby. This is reported solely because of the word "rapid."

Conversely, a condo building that's been under construction forever has still not opened. The pyramids were finished faster.

The fourth incarnation of a tiny doomed restaurant space is closed. You can't turn enough tables for it to work, but people keep trying----.

A cute coffee shop we never made it to has also closed (oops, correction. It has moved a block to a higher traffic area. We're not too late!).

A restaurant took down their sign about two years ago and we thought it had closed, but mysteriously they still seemed to have customers. Well, the sign has been re-installed so I guess they are officially open again.

A home converted into an attractive hostal near nothing-that-visitors-would-stay-overnight-for seems to be closed.

The chocolate shop next door that never had a customer has also closed.

I poked my head into the food court area at Milenium Plaza and noted the following (Disclosure: we don't go there very often so these changes could have occurred earlier than a month ago):

Sweet & Sexy, a children's clothing store (does the name raise eyebrows for you as well?) has expanded into women's clothing and moved to a larger space.

In its former location is yet another women's shoe store. How many can this population possibly support?

There is a new food purveyor called Captain Morgan's that serves absolutely nothing associated with its rum namesake.

Another new place is called Chips London. Fish & chips comprises a total of one thing on the entire menu, and it's not even the featured selection.

Venturing on, another coffee shop has opened near the Supermaxi. And, amazingly, set to open is a huge German-style beer hall right across the street from the grocery store.

Now this may seem to you like a lot of churn in just one month. Honestly, the players change but what I've reported is quite typical in our neighborhood. I've watched countless businesses come and go over the past seven years, which has led me to the following observations:

1) New businesses seem to be vastly under-capitalized. People invest everything they have just to get the doors open and cross their fingers.

2) Fundamental marketing principles are unknown. Owners invite their friends and relatives to the "grand opening" hoping the word will spread. If it does (which rarely happens) they succeed. If not the space is vacant within 3-6 months.

The coffee shop and artisan beer explosion has been totally unexpected. When we arrived in 2010 the preferred coffee was Nescafe--in a country that grows some of the finest coffee on the planet. And the beer choices were our two local options--Pilsener and Club. With these new trends plus the opening of both a food truck park and container park (a grouping of converted shipping containers serving a variety of cuisines) shortly before we left in May, Cuenca is almost becoming hip!

It's great to be back home. We look forward to reconnecting with our wonderful life here.



Friday, May 26, 2017

Ecuador Slim

When Tom challenged me to a game of pool I told him it had been years----.

"No problem," he said. "You break."

"You sure?"

"Yep. Go for it."

"OK-----."

In high school I did well in geometry. But there's quite a difference between solving an equation and determining the angle and speed of your shot. Applying "English" to the ball is perhaps the only time when my Spanish skills are superior.

As I struck the cue ball I discovered a similarity between my pool and golf games--the nagging tendency to take my eye off the ball and raise my head at the moment of impact. This causes you to "top" the ball instead of hitting it dead center.

The result of my vicious thrust of the cue stick was a slow motion curve ball that missed the triangular mass of balls completely and wandered into the right corner pocket.

We both laughed as Tom fished out the errant white "weapon of miss destruction" and told me to do it again.

I steadied myself, zipped the cue stick forward and achieved the exact same result, only this time with impressive velocity.

Now we were both doubled over and howling with laughter. Who knew pool could be this entertaining?

A third time I literally gave it a shot and---success!

Sort of.

My cue ball indeed made contact, but so lightly that the triangular formation of balls appeared to merely exhale. One who was watching this display of ineptitude and knew nothing about the game would have assumed the term "break" had some perversely opposite meaning. Because the object was obviously to treat the other balls as if they were eggs, and one should either miss them entirely or exhibit the superior skill of touching them very gently so that they don't in fact "break."

At this point tears were flowing and our jaws ached from laughing so hard. At least the game was finally underway.

I knew that to make a ball go to the right, for example, I needed to strike it left of center. But how far to the left? And at what speed? I kept guessing wrong, and in short order Tom had only a few balls left while most of mine were still littering the table.

This "strategy" would later work to my advantage, but right now I faced an additional challenge beyond the fact that I couldn't seem to get my balls to go into the holes. My "easiest" shot was right up against the edge of the table, forcing me to stand awkwardly with the back of a sofa right behind me.

I'll admit that alcohol was part of the evening, but the quantity of consumption wasn't sufficient for what happened next. Which was that after my shot (which also didn't go in) I lost my balance and did a back somersault, cue stick in hand, over the couch.

In relating this episode I just stopped to look up synonyms for "laughter," and there simply aren't words to describe the level of intensity our merriment had reached. The hooting and hollering as I lay there sprawled on the floor still holding that damn cue stick were simply epic.

To no one's surprise Tom polished off the game and perhaps out of pity offered to play another (with him breaking this time). I inadvertently unveiled my version of Muhammad Ali's Rope-a-Dope ploy by failing to sink hardly any balls, then by accident leaving the cue ball in a position at the end where he had no shot on the eight ball.

He missed and said, "Well, you won."

My celebratory comment was a confused, "Huh?"

At this point we opted to call the evening a friendly tie and go to bed.

All these antics earned me the nickname Ecuador Slim for the remainder of our visit. It's a moniker I'll treasure along with the lifelong memory of two grown men laughing at a silly game like little kids.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Driving Ms. Cynthia

After mud wrestling with Priceline for days I'd finally secured a reservation on a mid-sized car for only $13 a day. It's not that the regular rate was crazy expensive for the few days we would be needing a vehicle. Nor did I outsmart the system. Like with buying wine in the previous post, I simply persisted.

I didn't have long to celebrate my victory before I received an email from our hosts in Atlanta offering us the use of one of their cars during our stay. Since this freed up funds from the budget to share better-than-CVS wine with them I gratefully accepted and cancelled the rental reservation.

The car we were to use was pretty fancy and Tom carefully explained all of its features, including the push button start in lieu of a key. Afterwards we seemed ready to go, so I pushed the button as instructed.

Nothing.

"What's wrong? It didn't start."

"You've got to put your foot on the brake. That's how you start cars with a button."

"Lighten up, bro. Remember, I don't drive."

I noticed a change in Tom's expression as the reality of what I said, that his expensive vehicle was about to be driven away by, well---me, sunk in.

As I fiddled with adjusting the mirrors, seat, and steering wheel he came to the window and asked, "Is everything OK?"

"Yes, everything's fine. Relax, dude. I'll be extra careful, and I've got my co-pilot along to keep me straight."

As I backed out of the driveway Cynthia and I joked that he was probably calling his insurance company to increase the coverage.

Tom also kindly offered us his phone to use for navigation but this we declined. We've never had smartphones and weren't comfortable depending on unfamiliar technology to get us around. Instead we depended on the old fashioned methodology that had served us in the past.

No, not an unfolded paper road map like we used many times before personal computers. I went to Google Maps and printed out directions to each of our destinations. There's something reassuring to us about seeing the entire journey in black and white. Every turn and even the distance between each change in direction is right there in front of you before the trip even begins, as opposed to depending on some chick you've never met parsing it out one piece at a time. Especially when driving in the dark, "In 900 feet turn right on----" is too suspenseful for us.

The great news is that everything worked out just fine. We arrived at each stop on time without ever getting lost. Except that first night we came back to Tom and Brenda's an hour later than expected. I told him with a wink I had a hard time finding a body shop to repair the damage late on a Saturday.

He smiled but-----.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

You CAN Always Get What You Want

It seemed like a simple enough idea--go pick up a bottle of chardonnay to enjoy in our hotel room and sparkling wine to celebrate the end of the conference. Google Maps showed a liquor store nearby so off I went.

While confirming the directions with the bell captain, he shared that there was another place closer to the hotel in the opposite direction. Sounds good to me. The closer the better.

A block and a half away there it is. Perfect. I'll be back putting that chard on ice in minutes.

The store is small and so is the wine section. The selection is straight from the bottom shelf of a grocery store. We're by no means wine snobs, but while Cynthia prefers a buttery chardonnay, our choices in Ecuador might as well be labeled "lactose-free," so to please her I was aiming a little higher.

I'd noticed a second store a block further down the street so I meandered down there for a look. Amazingly, even worse than the place I just left.

OK, then on to the original location I found on the computer. It was a hike from my current location and the weather was a bit hot but I was not to be deterred. I arrived and walked into the smallest, crummiest excuse for a liquor store I have ever seen. This place was for hard core clientele seeking higher alcohol content and offered maybe five total bottles of wine, none of which were remotely drinkable.

Wow. Only one option left--go all the way back to the first store. This episode reminded me too much of daily life in Ecuador, where finding things often requires visits to multiple stores. But in Atlanta?? Never expected to be wandering the downtown streets in search of such a simple purchase.

Getting a quizzical look from the proprietor upon my re-entry, I grabbed the best bottle I saw and turned it around to check the price. Earlier I'd dissed the choices so quickly I hadn't even bothered, which I suddenly discovered was a big mistake.

$28?!? For at best a $10 bottle???

It's not that I couldn't afford it, but I just couldn't bring myself to voluntarily be ripped off so badly. I left frustrated and defeated, knowing what would be said as soon as I opened the door to our hotel room:

"YOU'VE BEEN GONE THIS LONG AND CAME BACK WITH NOTHING?!?"

Walking back I kept trying to remember something. "Cynthia, we haven't been that many places today. Where did we see wine for sale?"

"At the CVS up the street. Next to the section where we were buying cards. You should have just gone there."

Of course I should have gone there--if I had remembered where there was------.

(Sigh)

Shoes back on. Back out the door to the damn drugstore of all places. Decent chardonnay and better than average prosecco (at prices only slightly above the grocery) a few minutes later, we're finally in business.

Lesson relearned. No matter where you are, sometimes you've gotta keep going to get what you want. And in downtown Atlanta, the best wine shop is CVS----.



Thursday, May 4, 2017

I Don't Speak Starbucks

I enjoy a couple of cups of coffee each morning. Except for an occasional glass of iced tea at lunch I'm done with caffeine for the day. Meeting someone for a coffee? Nah. Coffee with dessert? Never.

And those cups of coffee are just that--cups filled with coffee. No cream or sugar for me, thank you.

I mention this because we're currently at a hotel in Atlanta for a conference, and while our room is equipped with a coffee pot, the coffee that is provided by most hotel chains, including this one, is pretty awful.

This means a mandatory visit to the Starbucks in the lobby. As odd as it may seem, moving to Ecuador where the primary language is of course Spanish has prepared me for this daily event. Why? Because just as I arrived in our new home with minimal Spanish skills, I find whenever I'm in one of these establishments that I speak minimal "Starbucks." Which could potentially signal a problem.

Right off the bat I see that the smallest cup they have is called "Tall." That's like calling me, at 6'3", short. I mean, seriously, where do you go from there?

Downhill is where.

I hear the people in front of me in line barking out orders concerning how many pumps of this. How much foam of that. I just want a damn cup of coffee.

I admit, I used to be intimidated by all this foreign jargon. When I was asked to get orders to go for my daughter and wife I made them write everything down so I wouldn't forget something or mix up the words before I got to the "Welcome to Starbucks---" part of the process.

But as I've gotten into the rhythm of what's actually going on I notice that all these "special order" people are standing around forever waiting for the baristas (Is that really what you call a coffee person? Does that mean that a McDonald's employee is a hamburgerista? Or a BigMacerista? Come on. How far removed is that from a janitor being a "sanitation engineer?) to pump and foam their beverage while I get my unadulterated venti (Really? Who are we kidding here?) cup of java and am outta there.

So now I confidently and fearlessly walk up and say, "I'd like a large cup of coffee to go, please." And you know what? I get a large coffee to go. Quickly. While all those other folks are waiting for their pumped and foamed whatever's.

I often joke that I'm fluent in Spanish when it comes to ordering food and getting home, which are the two main things I need to do when I exit my door. Looks like my Starbucks fluency has progressed to a sufficient level as well.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

It's the End of the World As We Know It

Cynthia and I watched a documentary about the history and future of the Internet last night. There were some fascinating as well as disturbing segments (addicted online gamers in Japan and S. Korea wear diapers so they don't have to be bothered actually getting up to go to the bathroom--gross!!), and a comment by one of the interviewees really got my attention.

Addressing the degree to which the Internet has pervaded society, he stated matter-of-factly that were the Internet to go down, civilization would instantly collapse into chaos. I thought, "What a remarkably ethnocentric thing to say."

As far as Western civilization goes I can agree with him. Communication and linkage via the Internet are key components of vast distribution systems geared to high degrees of efficiency. Last trip back I was continually amazed to find my daughter's Amazon orders at the door a day after purchase. And at the human level, I can imagine legions of the zombie apocalypse rendered helpless without smartphones to stare at all day.

If societal collapse is defined as the inability to provide even the bottom tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs--shelter, clothing, and food--Ecuador would be in fine shape with or without the Internet. Everyone here seems to have a roof over their heads, and no one is wandering around naked. In regards to food, Cynthia and I buy our groceries at the Supermaxi, but the vast majority of the citizenry either grow their own sustenance or shop at mercados, the equivalent of super-sized farmer's markets in the States.

These emporiums, located in virtually every city and town throughout the country, are overflowing with locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and breads plus all kinds of dry goods. This "distribution system" has successfully been in place for hundreds of years before the invention of the Internet or even electricity. Without Internet the grocery store chains would probably fold so we would simply "go local" and join our Ecuadorian brethren at the nearest mercado.

Speaking of electricity, I realize that Cynthia and I could even manage quite well without it as well (at least for a reasonable period of time). Our cook top, oven, and hot water are all powered by gas, so we could prepare food and maintain proper hygiene. Lack of refrigeration would only mean more frequent trips to a mercado. As it is our eggs and milk (ultra-pasteurized) are already bought from the shelf.

There is no heating or air conditioning here, and we have abundant windows on three sides of our apartment. We'd have to buy more candles and shift our schedule to go to bed and get up earlier, but that's not exactly a hardship. Lack of Internet and electricity would mean not knowing what's going on in the world, but honestly that rarely impacts our daily lives anyway.

Although we're not here for these reasons--we're no one's definition of survivalists or conspiracy theorists--considering the "what if" of such worst case scenarios only adds to my happiness that we chose to move to Cuenca, Ecuador. In the best of times it's terrific and even if all hell breaks loose in the world I realize that we would be be much better off than many.



Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Escape from the Gas Chamber

Simplifying our lives is an ongoing intention in Casa Staton. Ancient Chinese wisdom states that "the easiest journey has the least baggage," and over the past seven years we've succeeded in tossing a lot of unneeded physical, emotional, and psychological paraphernalia overboard.

A complicated life is often filled with stress, clutter, and endless activities. Been there, done that. We're always on the lookout now for new wrinkles that give us more time to do what we really want to do rather than what we have to do. And sometimes such opportunities unexpectedly fall right into our laps.

Against that philosophical backdrop let me tell you how gas service works around here. Trust me, it'll all come together at the end. We use natural gas for cooking and hot water. Larger apartment/condo buildings often have centralized service with the cost built into the monthly maintenance fee, but in our small building with only five units everyone is individually responsible.

The gas comes in tanks about three times the size of the ones you use with your gas barbeque grill. Their initial cost is about $65 each and replacements are only $2.50 delivered. We have two, one for immediate use and a spare for when that first one is emptied.

Trucks filled with these tanks drive around neighborhoods beep-beep-beeping their horns to alert you to their presence should you need a replacement. As a gesture of "supporting the local economy" for years I've chosen instead to buy mine from a tienda merchant around the corner.

This act of goodwill has often come at a price beyond the $2.50. You see, Santiago is both a good guy and a poster child for the Latin American mañana culture. I've learned the hard way to walk over there and buy a new tank as soon as one runs out because his promises of prompt delivery within a couple of days often stretch into more than a week.

One of his tanks usually lasts us about twelve days, so countless times after a week I've stopped by to "remind" him. My most effective technique is to mention Cynthia's name while pantomiming a knife being drawn across his throat if we totally run out of gas, with beheading occurring if she's in the shower at the time the water suddenly runs cold.

Recently we did run out. Fortunately no showers were in progress and Cynthia wasn't even home. I immediately high-tailed it to his store and said I needed two tanks now. Santiago of course profusely apologized, not only for the delay but also because he was there alone and couldn't leave.

I said, "Then put the tanks on that little delivery cart you sometimes use. I'll take them home myself and bring it back to you."

Let me tell you, these tanks are heavy. Two of them are damn heavy. Here I go huffing and puffing them down the street, drawing stares from both drivers and pedestrians. This is not a job you see an old gringo doing every day--actually, any day--in Cuenca.

We have low humidity here but I'm sweating like a one-armed paper hanger. Then when I finally get to our building I've got to negotiate a downhill incline into the basement with these two beasts. Against all odds the mission is a success.

I wasn't upset or mad about any of this. In fact Santiago and I laughed about the episode when I returned the cart.

Next time I needed gas he announced that his shoulder couldn't take the abuse anymore and he was out of the gas business. OK.

I came home and asked the woman who runs a beauty salon in our building who she uses. She said, "I need a tank right now. Do you need one too? I'll call and place an order for both of us."

"Great," I said. "How long does he take for delivery?"

"Oh, usually about thirty minutes."

"Thirty minutes?!? (I'm expecting an answer measured in days). Are you kidding me?"

At that moment, thirty seconds after she hangs up the phone, the gas tank guy pulls up in front of the building.

"What is happening here?," I gasp. "Is this some kind of magic trick??"

We all have a big laugh, pay for two gas tanks, and I happily come upstairs with a phone number that I instantly treasure.

I subsequently learn several more things. One is that this new guy's tanks last 50% longer than Santiago's. Inferior gas? Partially filled tanks? Who knows? Second, he's a real businessman. I called him late in the afternoon and asked if he could deliver a tank that day. "No," he said. "Eight in the morning." The next day there he was right on time.

Most importantly I learned something about myself. This surprising turn of events made me question why I had put up with Santiago's nonsense for so long. And the only honest answer is I wasn't being present, instead mindlessly repeating behavior that was in no way serving me.

From a minor episode thus comes an important life lesson. Now if I can just figure out how to get someone to carry those heavy groceries up four flights of stairs-------.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

People-ing

We were at lunch recently with good friends we haven't seen for awhile. In response to a question about what she'd been up to the female of the couple replied, "Well, I haven't been people-ing lately."

Her unique phraseology caught me off guard, but I get it.

Our own social calendar purposely has a lot more blank days than it used to. I've been reading through my posts from our earliest days here (an exciting new project is in the works) and I am amazed at the frenetic pace we somehow maintained for years! Once we actually took a long red eye flight back from the States, hauled our suitcases up the stairs, changed clothes and freshened a bit, then zipped off to a big party until the wee hours.

I often found myself saying to Cynthia, "We're acting like we're in our 20's. And we didn't act like this when we were in our 20's!!"

After each trip home we would vow to cut back on our socializing. And we did, but going out five times a week instead of all seven wasn't getting the job done. Finally we settled on no more than three engagements per week (Three a week? In the "old days" it was more like three a year!) and lately it hasn't even been that frequent.

Another change is we rarely go out at night except for dinners in the homes of friends, choosing instead to prepare an early meal and watch a movie or favorite TV show before going to bed at a reasonable hour. Meeting for lunch is our go-to social venue these days and has proven to be a stellar choice--it's usually cheaper, everyone's fresh, and the temptation to overdo the alcohol is less likely. In conversations with other expats who have been here for some time our social downsizing appears to be quite typical.

Sure, we're seven years older than when we arrived, but the main reason for us reverse-metamorphosing from social butterflies into caterpillars is that we now have a life. In the beginning we were trying to figure out what expat life even meant. New culture + new language + well, new everything is highly stimulating. And you're discovering after an adult lifetime of work/chores/errands that meeting lots of new people is really fun!

Now there is at least a semblance of order to our days, and people-ing for us is much more about quality than quantity. Of the hundreds we've met in Cuenca over the years I wouldn't characterize a single human being as evil (maybe "special" but not evil), but being honest there's simply better chemistry, however that is defined, with some folks. Nurturing those relationships is how we choose to invest our social time and energy.

Hey, guess what? We've got friends coming over for dinner in a few hours. I'd better get down to the kitchen and pitch in. See, we aren't completely cocooning.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

What's for Dinner?

I woke up Sunday to a rainy morning, the perfect setting to bake those chocolate chip cookies I talked about in my last post. Sunday's are the one quiet day in our neighborhood--no sounds of traffic or construction. Sawing, hammering, and banging somewhere within earshot have been, like the street noise five floors below, an almost constant part of our life here for seven years. So much so that we rarely even notice it any more.

The racket recently has come from two soon-to-open restaurants--one next door and the other right across the street. It's hard to believe that when we moved to this apartment almost seven years ago there were a total of two restaurants on the entire street!

Flash forward to now. Counting the two under construction (and a third a couple of minutes up the street) we now have twelve. A block away are three more, and on the street another block up we can choose from another ten. With full lunches as inexpensive as $2.75 each, no wonder we don't cook very much any more!

This explosion of the culinary scene isn't confined to just our neighborhood. New restaurants are popping up so quickly all over town that we literally can't keep up any more. Friends will ask, "Have you tried so and so?" and we're like, "Tried it? We've never even heard of it."

Are all the new expats in town fueling this movement? Hardly. Given that we represent less than 1% of Cuenca's population, our numbers don't influence much of anything.

With the proliferation of dining options in the States it's probably hard for you to imagine that the whole concept of eating out is relatively new here. When we arrived in 2010 locals often went to a restaurant with their families after Mass on Sunday, and almuerzos (fixed menu lunches) have been a staple of the culture forever. Other than that a special occasion meal in a nice hotel was pretty much all there was.

Since then the downturn in the global economy sent home thousands Cuencanos who were living abroad in the U.S. and Spain. They brought back with them the experience of casual dining, and many of them had in fact worked in all types of different restaurants.

That knowledge plus the money saved after years abroad is the driving force behind the growing food scene in Cuenca. Italian has traditionally dominated the international dining market, but lately Mexican seems to be all the rage. In the "old days" there was one Mexican restaurant downtown and another tucked into a remote neighborhood near the airport. Now we have five within a fifteen minute walk of our home!

Keeping it real, quantity and quality don't go hand in hand. For instance, we've yet to taste food that reminds us of the burritos and enchiladas we enjoyed back in the States. And Cynthia's marinara sauce tops anything we've been served in a restaurant.

But convenience sometimes tops flavor. Case in point--we're about to walk up the street for one of those $2.75 almuerzos. What's on the menu today? No idea. With a glass of fresh-squeezed juice, a big bowl of homemade soup and an entree of beef, chicken, or pork plus a big pile of rice it will be filling and nutritious.

And if I get hungry later there's a tempting platter of cookies waiting for me in the kitchen.

Friday, March 17, 2017

April Forecast: Barren with a Chance of Cookies

We've been here in Cuenca since the middle of January and don't return to the U.S. until the first part of May. That's the longest stretch at home in I don't know how long.

It's been a joy to get reacquainted with our hometown and to catch up with friends. We even miss the inexpensive almuerzos (fixed menu lunches) when we're away, and one of our "re-entry" rituals is to visit our favorite nearby restaurant for a big bowl of soup, glass of fresh-squeezed juice, entree and dessert ($6.50 total) as soon as possible after arrival.

Neither of us are big "shoppers," so our suitcases aren't bulging with new clothing after a trip to see the family. But what I really love to bring back are lots of yummy treats that you just can't buy here. Things like Ghirardelli chocolate chips, pecans and deluxe mixed nuts, interesting crackers, aged cheeses.

Cheese? Yep. Cheeses in Ecuador are perpetrators of identity theft. They go by names with which you are familiar like Gruyere or Cheddar but puzzlingly all taste kind of the same. This trait of sameness also applies to many breads and pastries as well as the wines we can afford. Cabernet? Merlot? All you know is it's red wine for less than $12.

So a trip to Trader Joe's or a local cheese stop is always one of our last errands before heading to the airport. Hard cheeses hold up just fine and cause no problems with those friendly TSA folks.

Sadly I seem to have miscalculated the time we would be home and thus underestimated the amount of goodies I needed to purchase. Plus I have a tendency to hit the treats hard when we first arrive because they were so readily available in the States.

I'm checking out what's left while looking at the calendar and I realize I've got a problem--too much time and too few snacks. Now I'm forced to ration my remaining stash like a castaway adrift in a lifeboat. Four Tuscan crackers and cubes of double cream Havarti. One delicious buttery something-or-other from Switzerland. There are two containers of nuts holding one small serving each that just sit there because to consume the contents means they're gone! Alas!!

My mistake means I'm facing a barren April of counterfeit cheese, anonymous wine, and tasteless treats. Oh, wait--there's a bag of chocolate chips on the top shelf.

Let's see, the cookie recipe makes four dozen so I can have one a day. Hooray! I'm saved!!

Where are those nuts? This calls for a celebration!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

There's a "Yes" Out There Somewhere

A few days ago I absentmindedly dropped our coffee pot on the tile floor in the kitchen. This aggravated me for three reasons: 1) I obviously wasn't fully present in the moment, 2) I'd created a huge mess with shards of glass from large to nearly invisible everywhere, and 3) if I didn't get a replacement we weren't having coffee the next day.

Locating a miscellaneous item in Cuenca is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yes, we have Amazon, but in Ecuador's case it's a huge swath of jungle on our eastern border. No computer searches here--you've got to get off your butt and start looking.

Two instances involving my watch taught me the ropes of this procedure. First the battery died. I head into El Centro, go into the first jewelry store I come upon, hold out my watch and say, "Necesito una batería nueva." The clerk looks at it and says, "No." This is the expected response. Sometimes you strike gold with the first swing of the pick ax but-----.

On to the next one. Fortunately in Cuenca, much like in Europe, similar stores are often grouped very closely together. There's the "fabric block," the "party store block," and so on. The drill is you go into store after store and repeat the same sentence until someone says, "Yes."

While I was in the States one of the little metal posts connecting the links on my watch's wristband broke, and I decided, "No big deal--I'll wait until I got home to get it fixed." Wrong. Whereas replacing the battery took only two or three tries, getting that link repaired approached double figures. Still, a positive response and $5 later I was back in business.

Replacing the coffee pot presented a more nuanced challenge. There was nothing wrong with the coffee maker itself, but could I possibly discover a store that would sell only the carafe? I knew my chances were slim and none, so I waded into the "appliance block" near Parque Calderon fully prepared to return home with a whole new unit.

Stores that sell appliances downtown have a very curious mix of merchandise. Where else in a relatively small space can you buy a stove, a guitar, and TV, or perhaps a motorcycle? And in my case, a coffee pot.

This is Carnaval weekend in Ecuador, and as I approached the central park I heard the unmistakable sounds of a parade. A parade I was going to have to cross to reach my destination.

Oh, boy-----.

Two main ways of celebrating Carnaval here are spraying aerosol foam on and throwing water at each other. As I got closer I saw both activities were in full swing. Parade participants and onlookers were covered with all colors of foam; kids were armed with gigantic water guns.

Here I go. I cross the parade and magically feel like I'm doing one of those Tony Robbins fire walks where your feet don't get burned. It's as if I'm wearing a "cloak of invisibility." At 6'3", bald, and blue-eyed, the most visible person there somehow makes it through without a single drop of foam or water. Hooray!!

I enter store after store, and sure enough it appears I need to be narrowing down which new unit I'll be purchasing, because nobody is selling just a pot.

And then magic happens again.

An employee in maybe the seventh store asks in English, "What are you looking for?" I explain my situation and he says, "Oh, you need only the pot? Let me tell you where to go." He proceeds to draw me a map and write down the name of the shop, which is fortunately a few blocks away.

I thank him profusely and zip right over there, donning my invisibility cloak as I once again miraculously cross the parade unscathed. Sure enough, there on the shelf is exactly the replacement pot I've been seeking. After a $13 transaction I'm happily on my way home. There will be coffee in the morning!

I share this story as an example of how expat life is very different from the United States. The convenience many of you readers take for granted simply doesn't exist here. Levels of patience and persistence you didn't know you had become your strongest allies. For most everything there's a "yes" out there somewhere. You've got to be willing to keep looking until you find it.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscar Time!

Tomorrow night is the Academy Awards show, so Cynthia and I have been watching the nominated films like crazy recently. Each year it's a tradition for us to see every movie in the major nominated categories before the "big night." (Disclaimer--this time we skipped Florence Foster Jenkins because it looked horrible and we couldn't do a whole movie with bumbling Hugh Grant, and Nocturnal Animals because everything I read said it was horrible) We've got the time and we love movies (and Cynthia loves the dresses)!!

For 2017 there are nine films nominated for Best Picture and I'm not sure why. In the previous two years there were eight (which still seems like too many) and from my perspective it's certainly not because there were so many awesome flicks and performances to choose from. Too many nights we finished a movie, looked at each other and said, "Well, that was disappointing."

I think last year's "outrage" about the lack of minority nominees is partly to blame. It felt like to make amends studios green-lighted the commercial release of more movies with black actors (films are in production for a long time, and many go straight to DVD), and critics felt compelled to praise them. Before you rush to judgment labeling me a racist for daring to say such a thing, read on.

So in too many cases we endured rather than enjoyed the process this time around. And aren't movies supposed to be on some level enjoyable even if the subject matter is disturbing? With that being said, here's my take on this year's nominations in the order they are listed on Oscar's official website:

Best Picture

Arrival--thought-provoking, and the only movie we actually discussed at length afterwards.

Fences--couldn't decide whether to be a play or a movie. There's something incongruous about an uneducated black garbage man in the 50's riffing street talk with his buddies and then breaking into an introspective Shakespearean monologue. Boring visually and didn't work for me.

Hacksaw Ridge--very moving story and the battle sequences were riveting. A few "Hollywood moments" I could have done without but overall a solid movie.

Hell or High Water--underappreciated film that maybe wasn't marketed properly. Chris Pine is way too handsome to play a poor white trash character, but I liked the story very much.

Hidden Figures--hands down the best of the bunch. A "who knew?" story about the huge contribution of black women to the U.S. space program. If you haven't seen it--see it.

La La Land--the opening production number was SO over the top that I thought, "Wow, this is going to be incredible!" And it wasn't. It was fine--I enjoyed it. But Best Picture? Sorry, no.

Lion--again, an OK movie that went on much too long. I could have figured out on my computer in a day (and I'm no expert, believe me) what it took the main character two years to discover.

Manchester by the Sea--am I not through with this category yet?? Geez. Tough story, very well done. Deserves all the praise. My second favorite.

Moonlight--critics loved it. I hated it. A Hollywood double header--urban street life with a gay main character. I'm not the only one with this sentiment. I just checked and even with all the hype it's done a whopping $22 million at the box office. Zootopia (more on this one later), on the other hand, has grossed over $1 billion!

Best Actor

To keep us all from being bored I'm going to summarize the rest of these categories. Casey Affleck should win for Manchester by the Sea. Andrew Garfield is my second choice for Hacksaw Ridge. Is it possible for an actor to be on the screen too much? That's the way I felt about Denzel Washington (the apparent favorite) in Fences--I wanted him to go away and shut the hell up.

Best Actress

Confession time--like Johnny Depp in his prime, I can't take my eyes off Ryan Gosling in a movie. Emma Stone--uh, not so much. La La Land is a musical (or at least tries to be), so when the actress is fine acting but only average as a singer and dancer, I'm out. Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in Jackie. Dishonorable Mention: Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert, is even worse than Moonlight. My four word review--wretched, disturbed people interacting.

Best Supporting Actor

This category baffles me. Mahershala Ali (Remy on House of Cards) is getting all this buzz for his role in Moonlight. Friends, he's in the movie for like 15 minutes in the beginning and his performance is NOT riveting. I kept waiting for him to reappear and justify the accolades. Didn't happen. Jeff Bridges owns his role in Hell or High Water and is a shoo-in to me.

Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis is said to have inserted herself into this category instead of Best Actress. She would have won in either. All the other contenders did good work, especially Nicole Kidman in Lion.

Best Animated Feature Film

Zootopia deserves every penny it has earned. Amazing animation--great story--lots of laughs along with a positive message. I didn't expect to say it was my overall favorite movie of the year. Which speaks volumes about the nine listed above.


So there you have my critique of last year's movies. I don't get enough comments on this blog. Chime in, y'all.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Beware the "Death Cross!"

I keep up with political news in the U.S. I know all about the protesters who, almost four months later, still can't believe that Trump won. I know about Trump constantly lambasting the media for reporting "fake news." I know about the wranglings in Congress over Cabinet appointments, and about Senate Republicans threatening to use the "nuclear option" to confirm Trump's Supreme Court pick. There's a lot of angst going on up there, but I'm here to tell you you're not the only show in town.

We've got our own election shenanigans here in Ecuador. And yesterday our current President, Rafael Correa, evoked a term that makes "nuclear option" sound like ordering the spiciest wings on the menu.

He threatened to use the "Death Cross."

Does that sound ominous or what? THE D-E-E-A-A-T-T-H-H CROSSSSSSS----. But then again the term brings to mind a super-special wrestling submission hold like The Texas Octopus, The Sleeper, or my favorite, The Hangman.

Let me explain what's happening. Correa and the party he created, Alianza Pais, have ruled the country without serious opposition for the last ten years. Since we had seven, count 'em, seven Presidents in the ten years before his ascension to power, his tenure in office has been tremendously stabilizing to say the least.

And he has accomplished miracles over the past decade, catapulting Ecuador from a sleepy third world country to one of Latin America's most admired. Oil is Ecuador's main source of income, and high prices for the commodity allowed him to fund massive improvements in infrastructure, education, medical care. And China stood ready to bankroll whatever else he wanted to do.

But when the price of oil plummeted it was discovered that, like a giddy lottery winner, Correa had spent it all and not maintained adequate reserves. So the country's economy has taken a hit over the past couple of years but to be fair, he's done an admirable job of steering Ecuador through some rocky straits and we already appear to be on the rebound.

The other problem is that President Correa, much like you-know-who currently occupying the Oval Office, has--how to say it??--a polarizing personality. He shoots from the hip, blasts those who disagree with him, and has run the country with a "my way or the highway" attitude.

Sound familiar?

All that was tolerable while the good times were rolling, but the downturn in the economy combined with ten years of abrasive behavior from their leader have made Ecuador's citizens open to a change of direction.

In the past Pais has maintained its stranglehold on political control largely because in Ecuador it seems anybody can run for office, so at election time there would be 7 or 8 opposing candidates with conflicting agendas and minor constituencies to scatter the vote.

Our recent election season (which ended last week and thankfully runs only about a month and a half instead of for-ever in the U.S) was no different regarding the number of candidates, but this time a conservative banker from Guayaquil, Guillermo Lasso, mounted a serious challenge to Correa's hand-picked leftist successor, Lenin Moreno. Reflecting a rightward shift that has taken place not only in the United States and the U.K. but also within South America (both Peru and Argentina have recently chosen conservative leaders), Lasso garnered enough votes to force a runoff.

And in a dramatic shift from the fractured past, all but one of the defeated candidates have pledged their support to Lasso. Since Moreno failed to crack 40% in the initial election it is widely thought that Lasso will prevail in the runoff, signalling another defeat for the "pink wave" of leftist, socialist leaders in South America.

Which brings us to the Death Cross.

In an interview yesterday Correa conceded that a Lasso victory is "very possible," but then suggested said victory could somehow possibly lead to a political crisis. Should that occur he mentioned an obscure constitutional statute called "muerte cruzada"--the dreaded Death Cross--that can be used by a president in extreme situations to dissolve the National Assembly and order new elections, including one for President.

He also dropped a hint that if the Death Cross were employed he might consider running for President again himself. Now that, my friends, would indeed create a political crisis.

So now you know the United States isn't the only country with political drama. Whereas yours seems to be never-ending with President Trump at the helm, ours will hopefully be over after the runoff election on April 2 when Ecuador, like the U.S., may perhaps be embarking on a radically different course.

How fortunate we are to be experiencing this pivotal and most interesting period in world history.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

How Many Ecuadorians Does It Take----

Are you old enough to remember the "joke" about a certain European nationality changing a light bulb? (Answer--3. One to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder). This post isn't about ethnic insensitivity or making fun of another culture. A funny incident happened last week that I simply want to pass along to readers curious about what life is really like here in Ecuador.

Thursday is the day our housekeeper cleans the apartment. She was already here so we were surprised to hear a knock at the door. Lo and behold it was our landlord and another guy. He explained that they were here to take care of some problems we've been having with some of our light fixtures.

Backing up, these problems have been going on for months. But none were like ruining our quality of life or anything, so while we had made him aware of them we hadn't been applying pressure to get them fixed. But on this particular day for some unknown reason here they were bright and early at our front door so giddyup!

The gentleman accompanying our landlord is what is known as a "maestro." In our world we might think of a maestro as the person conducting an orchestra or at least a master of his trade. We used to think that about people who showed up to do work here. Just as we have learned over the years that mañana doesn't mean "tomorrow" but instead "not now," we've figured out that maestro indeed means "the person who shows up."

Clue #1--after examining the lights that won't come on in the ventilation hood over our stove, he asks me if I have a screwdriver. What "maestro" shows up without any tools?

Clue #2--he inquires if I have a ladder. See previous question.

While "handyman" will never be part of my resume I do have both of the required items. Plus a hammer and pliers should they be needed later.

The deliberations about these two little bulbs goes on and on. I go into the kitchen at one point and there's a third guy who appeared out of nowhere and vanished just as mysteriously. I didn't ask. Eventually Cynthia lies down on the couch and I assume a similar horizontal position in the bed. Our maid keeps cleaning.

At some point our landlord comes into the bedroom to inform me that they have to take the kitchen fixtures to a workshop for testing. He says they may have to jerry rig a separate switch to solve the problem. I ask him if it will be ugly. He says, "Maybe," another word that we've learned that in this context really means "Yes." I tell him ugly is not acceptable. He seems surprised that his solution is vetoed.

But while we're in the area, what about the lights that don't work in the master bathroom? The ones over Cynthia's sink and the accent light over a painting? The maestro replaces a socket and gets the accent light back on again. Hooray! Then he replaces one of the two bulbs over the sink with a light so bright that sunglasses are required. He is pleased that it works. I ask him to take it out and find something else.

All of this has been going on for hours and the two of them finally leave with the dismantled kitchen lights and wiring. They say they will be back "mas tarde en la tarde" (later in the afternoon). Translation--they ain't coming back today.

Sure enough, the next morning our amigos are knocking on the door. They've added a separate switch to the lights that dangles from the back of the hood. Not great, but some strategically placed masking tape holds it in place without looking too weird. For some reason one of the new bulbs doesn't work so they have to remove the one from the accent fixture in the bathroom that just became functional yesterday.

(Sigh)

So here's where we stand a week later: the lights in the kitchen work--the lights in the bathroom still don't work. And it may be months before they do. We'll just have to wait for the next knock on the door.

In Ecuador, that's solid progress.