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 maƱana 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


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.