Thankful For Friends

This year marks my 5th Thanksgiving in Ecuador!  It’s interesting when you are in a foreign country and celebrating a big holiday for you, that the rest of the country doesn’t even acknowledge.  In Ecuador, the 4th Thursday in November is just like every other day.  But those of us who are from, or who lived in the U.S., know it as one of the biggest celebrated holidays there.  So our local expat community enjoys keeping the tradition here, and this year I gathered with 15 of my closest friends to celebrate.  Never mind that only four of us were originally from the U.S.!  Not to mention, our host, Wayne, is from Canada and our hostess, Fatima, is half Brazilian and half Japanese!  But they did live in Houston, TX for about 10 years, so they certainly qualified to host the gathering.

It was such a wonderful evening spent with people who have become family to me.  We had TONS of good food – and I made chocolate orange marmalade cake! 😮  And we all agreed that topping our gratitude list are the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  Below are pictures of the festivities (click on the first photo, to scroll through it as a larger slide show and read the captions):

 

One Year Later…

Well, today marks one year since the devastating 7.8 earthquake that rocked Ecuador last April.  I find it very fitting that the anniversary falls on Easter/Resurrection Sunday, a day that celebrates the new life we have been offered in Jesus.  My friend, Aileen, wrote a short, but fitting Easter blog post, and I would encourage you to take a look.  But I would like to briefly update you on the earthquake recovery efforts in my area.

Demolition in the devastated Tarqui area following the earthquake

My shopping city of Manta has made an amazing comeback!  Many buildings have been repaired or torn down, although there are still others awaiting either.  Most impressive has been the efforts towards helping the many home and store owners/vendors of the destroyed Tarqui area.  For the most part, Tarqui still remains closed off and demolished.  I have been told eventually all of it will be torn down and turned into a large city park.  But the government has done a fabulous job of building a whole new area, even closer to the bus terminal, for the venders to relocate and sell their wares.  There are three large sections side by side, with two sections being rows and rows of garage style stalls.  The third section is larger stores made out of railroad car containers!  This area has some of the bigger chain stores here, including appliance stores, pharmacies and even a bank, as well as a food court area.  All of this opened within about six months after the earthquake.  There is also a new mall that was under construction prior to the earthquake, but afterwards they really stepped up the pace, with the goal of opening it in time for the anniversary.  They are falling a few days short, but I’ve heard it will be open this week – we are all very excited!

Edwin playing tour guide during Mike & Dana’s visit. We rode in the car he purchased with your GoFundMe contributions.

In addition, the people many of you personally helped are doing very well.  As I’ve mentioned several times before, my friend Edwin was able to get back on his feet quickly with the vehicle that was purchased with funds many of you donated.  As is true of many hard working Ecuadorians, he wears several entrepreneurial hats to make a good life for his family.  He now is in partnership with another friend of ours and has started a successful car rental business.  He also has been buying and selling silver jewelry, as well as doing private taxi and tour guiding when the opportunities come.

Edwin has also reported to me that his church has raised enough funds to begin work on a new building.  It is truly amazing that they could manage to do so in such a short time, considering all the personal devastation suffered by so many families in the earthquake.

The funds some of you donated helped erect this structure for Leonardo and Maria: foundation, columns and roof, all built to better earthquake standards. Part of it is now enclosed, with the hope that he can add more rooms later.

And finally, the couple from Edwin’s church, Leonardo and Maria, that some of you helped fund their rebuilding effort, are doing well.  It took quite a while from my initial appeal, to make it happen.  Funds came in slowly, and the work had to be done as we received the money and had volunteers to help.  A neighbor allowed them to build next to and use their existing wall, and we were able to make a good concrete foundation, support pillars and roof for them, as well as buy some bricks for the remaining three walls.  We fell short of the amount we needed to raise, but in the end God blessed Leonardo with a significant sized plumbing job, and he was able to contribute the remaining money to purchase what else was needed and finish putting up the walls.  That has only been completed in the past few months, and he will add water, electricity, more rooms, etc. as he is able.  But I’m happy to be able to show you these pictures that Edwin just recently took of an inaugural gathering Leonardo and Maria hosted in their new home:

The earthquake I went through was truly one of the most surreal events I’ve ever experienced and something I hope to never repeat in my lifetime.  However my damage was minimal and repaired within six months.  Many other people suffered loss of homes, livelihoods and even loved ones.  But I have been so impressed with the solidarity I’ve continued to see on every level, from individuals, to organizations and even the government, to help get Ecuador and its people back on their feet.  I am thankful, one year later on this Easter Sunday, to be able to look around so many places and see “beauty instead of ashes.” (Isaiah 61:3)

Moving Right Along

Well, here we are at the start of another year – unbelievable!  As I’ve mentioned before, I tend to be deeply reflective regarding a New Year.   At the end of every year, as I look back and evaluate, I can always see a theme.  In the three years since I’ve been here, each one has been very distinct.

In the first year (2014), the Robert Story was the primary focus of my time.  It was an incredibly intense, but profound journey.  However, in 2015, I spent much of the year struggling to get the details of my house finished (even though I had already moved in the previous November).  It was a season where I found myself frustrated and “leaning on my own understanding” in dealing with some of the obstacles and people I was working with.  In addition, some other happenings in my life that year really served to show me how much I had allowed myself to become preoccupied, distracted and off track – “forsaking my first love.”  But God, in His mercy, brought the gentle correction I needed to realize my loss of focus.  By the end of the year, I was disappointed in myself in all the ways I felt I had failed.  Which is why I was so thankful I was invited to join in the customary New Year’s ritual to symbolically burn up all the “fret and regret” I wanted to let go of.

This past year has been one marked with “staying the course.”  It has been an exercise in quickly recognizing those times and tendencies when I would be tempted to take my focus off where it should be.  Most of the year was rather routine and uneventful – except, of course, for the earthquake!  But even in that, the Lord showed me that I was keeping my eyes and focus where they needed to be.

So this past year felt like it was a chance to “put into practice” the things I learned from the previous year.  And for the most part, I feel like I can say I’ve stayed on track.  God has always seemed to deal with me in calendar years, and I have no idea the highs and/or lows in store for this next year.   But my prayer is that the ground I’ve gained (or at least maintained) will serve to prepare me to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

Feliz Año Nuevo!

Christmas Presence

My little tree I bought my first year here, decorated with all the favorite ornaments I'd saved and brought from home

My little tree I bought my first year here, decorated with all the favorite ornaments I’d saved and brought from home

This year I had the best Christmas present I could ask for – the presence of my very best friends in Ecuador, in my home on Christmas Day.

I’ve not hosted any real gatherings here, much less a holiday.  As I’ve mentioned before and the rest of my family can attest to, my mother was an amazing cook and consummate holiday hostess.  Although I know I shouldn’t be, I’m still a bit intimidated living in her shadow and knowing I could never measure up.  That is coupled with the fact that my goal in life is to make it to the end without ever cooking a turkey (and with 51 years under my belt, I think I’m going to accomplish it).  So I’m not super confident about hosting holiday gatherings.

Bill, Rick, Elaine and Mesfin - all very dear friends

Bill, Rick, Elaine and Mesfin – all very dear friends

But this year, our friend Rick is here for his first Christmas in Ecuador, having finally retired and completed his house in Mirador San Jose.  He just moved here “permanently” last week (other than making annual visits back to Canada).   That, along with the fact that Bill and Elaine have hosted me for countless (and I do mean countless) gatherings and meals over the past three years, I really wanted to make their Christmas special.  So I invited them for a non-traditional (although hopefully tasty) Christmas lunch.  I included our former neighbors Mesfin and Sam, although sadly Sam couldn’t attend because he was hosting guests at his bed and breakfast.

The spread

The spread

Everyone arrived about 1:30 and after a small gift exchange, we feasted.  Elaine brought raw veggies and two dips, as well as her famous pickles, pickled beets and pickled green beans.  I made “angel” eggs, tomato and mozzarella salad with fresh basil, broccoli chicken devan, and my mother’s & aunt Dora’s famous “nilche” recipe (an Italian dumpling made with flour, eggs, butter and Parmesan cheese).  For dessert we had chocolate, peanut butter and oatmeal “no-bake” cookies.

After our meal, we just sat around talking, telling stories and laughing (and Mesfin even took a little snooze).  It was a quiet, relaxing and pleasant Christmas Day with the ones here who are nearest and dearest to my heart.

I have had several behind the scenes challenges to deal with in my life lately.  But one of the things I love most about this time of year is the chance to stop, put it all on pause, and focus on the most important things in my life – faith and friendships.  I wish for all of you peace on earth and good will towards men – and may God bless us everyone!

City Lights Highlights

This is my fourth Christmas season in Ecuador (can you believe it?!), but no matter how I try, it is still hard to really get into the Christmas spirit in a tropical environment.  That is why I was so excited when my new friends, Donald and ML, offered me an opportunity to dust the sand off my feet, put on long pants and a jacket, and accompany them on a trip to visit the city of Cuenca.

Photos can't do justice to the beautiful scenery in Cajas National Park

Photos can’t do justice to the beautiful scenery in Cajas National Park

The historic city of Cuenca is the third largest in Ecuador, (behind Guayaquil and Quito, respectively) with a population of just over half a million people.  This 500 year old city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.  The city has a very European feel and still boasts an impressive amount of Spanish colonial architecture, historic churches (52 in all) and meandering cobblestone streets.  Cuenca sits around 8,200 feet above sea level, nestled in a bowl with the Andes mountains 360 degrees all around.  Traveling to the city, we went through Cajas National Park.  About an hour outside of Guayaquil we reached the park entrance, which is approximately 500 feet above sea level.  Within less than an hour, we had climbed to almost 14,000 feet!  The beautiful drive reminded me of meandering through the Alps.  But due to being on the equator, the climate stays relatively steady year round, so they don’t get snow.  In Cuenca, the temperature ranges between 50 to 70 degrees most days, and usually with a rain shower in the afternoon (although the first day I was there, I was treated to a full blown lightening and thunder storm!).

My Parisian style cafe...

My Parisian style cafe…

...and much needed cappuccino

…and much needed cappuccino

We left Puerto Cayo at 5:00 a.m. and after a 6.5 hour drive (including rest stops), checked into our historic hotel.  Shortly thereafter, my friends accompanied me to the main park and town square, so that I could take the city bus tour.  ML previously lived in Cuenca and she and Donald have spent a lot of time there, so we had already agreed that while they were taking care of some business and meeting with friends, I would explore the city on my own.  They headed off and while I waited for my tour, I enjoyed a much needed cappuccino at a quaint little Parisian style cafe on the square.

The scenic overlook of the city of Cuenca

The scenic overlook of the city of Cuenca

The tour, which lasted two hours, was in an open air, double decker bus.  It was a great way to get an overview of the city, with a stop at a scenic overlook.  Unfortunately, the rain began shortly after the tour and was finally coming down heavily enough, that eventually we had to go down to the lower part of the bus.  By the time we reached the overlook, the whole city was obscured by the storm.  However, it was quite the vantage point to watch the incredible lightening show, and it cleared just enough to get some decent pictures before we left.

That evening, I met back up with ML and Donald and after a light snack of a Christmas tamale, we headed back to the town square to the old cathedral (we’re talking over 500 years), which is now a museum, but was hosting a Christmas concert by the Cuenca International Chorus.   This group is composed of English speaking ex-pats from various countries, and they put on quite a wonderful show.  For years, vocal concerts were a regular part of my Christmas festivities, and it was really special to be able to enjoy one again.  The last few songs were traditional carols, that included the audience singing and lighting candles that we were all given when we came in.  At the final song, “Silent Night,” we all filed out of the cathedral with lit candles into the cold night air, to be greeted by the streets lit up with Christmas lights – finally, it felt like Christmas in Ecuador!

Me in the Cuenca flower market

Me in the Cuenca flower market

The next morning, we went for a walk along the river.  Cuenca actually has four rivers running through the city, but the Tomebamba River is the main one that divides the old, colonial Cuenca from the new, modern part of the city.  Afterwards, my friends led me back to the flower market that I had remarked about passing on the bus tour the day before.  Here we parted ways, and while they did more errands and visiting friends, I enjoyed the rest of the day wandering through the city.  I meandered through the streets and back to some of the areas we’d already been to, for further exploration.  At one point, I was passing back by the park area and was drawn to the sound of a familiar tune.  As I walked into the park to listen, I realized it was coming over a loud speaker system.  The scene before me, put to the beautiful background music of, “The Very Thought of You,” was too much not to stop and take it all in.  I recorded a small bit of it so you could get a feel for the magic of the moment:

My friends, Donald & ML, at the lit up river walk

My friends, Donald & ML, at the lit up river walk

Later that evening, we met back up for a wonderful dinner at a tucked away restaurant that served a variety of tasty fare.  My friends enjoyed Thai bowls, while I was enthralled with my chicken pesto sandwich.  After dinner, we walked back along the river, taking in the transformation from our views earlier in the day, to a beautifully lit nighttime extravaganza.

The following morning brought more errands for my friends and more wandering for me, before we departed the city nearly 48 hours later than when we’d arrived.

Another great wandering find - this precious little girl enthralled with the pigeons

Another great wandering find – this precious little girl enthralled with the pigeons

I cannot say enough how much I loved Cuenca!  It is a very safe city to walk around in, because everyone else is out walking too.  The seemingly endless blocks of coffee houses, bakeries, museums, shops, parks, candy stores, boutiques, churches, etc. are a wanderer’s dream!  Strolling along, one can’t help but be drawn to the smells of fresh coffee or baked bread, the occasional music wafting from various stores, or just the people of all walks of life, from casually dressed, to three pieced suits, to indigenous ladies with their long braids, skirts and traditional hats.  Cuenca is truly a feast for the senses in every way – the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings of the warm sun, crisp air or rain droplets, all add to the charm of this incredible city.  If you can’t already tell, I’m in love with Cuenca – so plan a trip to visit me, and I’ll take you there so you can fall in love with it too!

Below is a slideshow of some more pictures from my visit.  If you are receiving my blog by email, click here to view them – I hope you enjoy!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Ho Ho Ho!

This week, my good friends, Bill & Elaine, had a few of us over for brunch.  Every so often, they host a gathering of the “old gang” – me, Sam and Mesfin, our former neighbors from when Bill, Elaine and I had first arrived here, and we were renting across the street and next door from them respectively.

Several weeks ago, I was shopping with Elaine and found one of those cheap, reindeer headbands.  I told her I was going to buy it for Tag and she said, “He won’t wear it,” and I said, “He just has to keep it on long enough for me to get a picture.”

So below you will see (with Elaine’s assistance), Tag the reindeer:

Tag reindeer

They are also fostering a little stray puppy that they are keeping until some people, who are moving to their development next month, arrive from Canada and adopt him.  So here is little Pumba in big brother Tag’s reindeer gear:

Pumba reindeer

And finally, in the spirit of the season, it seemed fitting for the rest of us to get into the act as well.  So there you have it folks – now all we need is a sleigh!

 

Thanksgiving Surprise

GroupFoodThis year was my fourth Thanksgiving in Ecuador.  Each year’s celebration has been unique and this one was no exception.  A group of 25 of us gathered at the home of a friend in my development to enjoy fabulous food and fellowship, but also bid farewell to some of our neighbors, Mark & Diane, who will be moving back to the states in a few days – we will miss them greatly.

Just the day before (on Wednesday), I was visiting with my friend Edwin in Manta, and he remarked that I seemed to be glowing.  I told him it was because I spent the time on the bus ride, reflecting on all the blessings I had to be thankful for.  But it is what happened on Thanksgiving day, as I was preparing my food for the event, that brought me to tears and gave me one more huge reason to be thankful.

I’m really not even sure how to start to tell this story, because it has literally been a life-long one.  My life has been anything but boring, and there are several major stories within the story, that those who know me well know, but I’ve not shared them here.  One that I’ve made brief mention of, is that I was adopted and over 20 years ago, I found my birthmother, and shortly thereafter she put me in touch with my birthfather.  I’ve had relationships with both of them ever since.  However, the caveat on my birthfather’s side was that he was already married and had a family when I was born, and he never told them about me.  And after we met, he still chose not to tell them, for fear of the repercussions that might result.  I accepted his decision and placed no expectations on him, but was simply thankful to get to know him at whatever opportunities I was given.  He arranged for me and my (former) husband to fly to meet him for a few days on several different occasions.  But the last personal visit I had with him was in January 2003.

The one thing I lamented was that as an only child, I’d wished for some siblings.  I’d hoped when I found my birthmother that she would have had other children, but that turned out not to be the case.  However, my birthfather already had four sons when I was born, and adopted a daughter a few years afterwards.  So I did indeed have siblings, but I could not know them.  I only saw pictures and video and heard about their lives.

Then, in 2007, my birthfather offered to pay for us to come along on one of the “trip of a lifetime” vacations he was taking his other children and spouses on – a Mediterranean cruise.  It was finally an opportunity for me to meet my siblings face to face – but they still couldn’t know who I was.  I accepted the offer and prayerfully committed to God that I would make no attempts to force any interactions on the trip, but leave it all up to Him.  Not only did God orchestrate several encounters with all of my siblings, but actually put us in line as we were checking in for the cruise, with the one brother closest to me in age.  He struck up a conversation with us, which brought continued interactions and conversations the rest of the trip.  Then near the end, he “accidentally” ended up on an excursion alone with us, because he signed up for the wrong one from the rest of his family.  So while enjoying the famous Amalfi coast drive, I also enjoyed several hours of conversation with him.  Then the last day before the cruise ended, I again “accidentally” ran into him as I was going back to get something from my room.  He invited for us to meet him for a drink the last night of the cruise.  My birthfather later told me my brother mentioned me to them and he thought a lot of me.

That cruise was the last time I was able to see my birthfather (and even then, not personally).  However, he has kept in touch by phone all these years, calling me every few weeks or so.  As time passed, he felt more and more concern for what the fall-out would be if his family found out, but also more and more sorrow over what he’d missed in a relationship with me.

About two years ago, he began feeling “off.”  I could tell the difference of his demeanor in our conversations.  Finally, after a year of doctors not being able to figure out what was wrong, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  At first, when they put him on medication, he was feeling much better.  But then recently, I noticed a change again.  He turned 87 at the end of October (the same age my mom was when she passed away).  The next time we talked, he was complaining that he had no energy and also had been having pain in his shoulder.  He said he was going to have an x-Ray that week to see what was wrong.   A few days later, I came home from my weekly trip to Manta to a message from him that said they had found he has lung cancer.  A few more days later we were able to talk.  He told me they were running more tests to determine what type it was and see if it had spread, but he suspected it wasn’t good and he really didn’t want to do any treatments.

Over the years, he had always maintained that if something ever happened to him, he would not want me to contact his family until after his wife was gone.  He felt that if she knew about me, her reaction would affect the kids’ attitudes and it would not be a positive thing.  I always told him I would likely not try to contact them under those circumstances, because without them hearing from him how he felt about me, I would be a stranger to them.

All of this I just accepted, because I learned a long time ago that accepting life as it is, and not as you wish it would be, is the key to contentment.  However, all of this naturally brought back to me the reality that at some point, I would just stop hearing from him.  And then at some other point, I would search the online obituaries and find out he was gone.

So on Thanksgiving day, when the phone rang and I saw his name on the caller ID, I was very surprised.  I figured as usual on holidays, he’d be surrounded by family (and even more so now) and would not have a minute alone.  When I answered, he wished me a happy Thanksgiving and told me he wasn’t doing too well, but he’d made a significant stride that morning.  I said, “Oh?” and then he said, “Craig is listening.”  Craig is his oldest son – my brother!!!  I was speechless and simply said, “What???!”  He repeated it and when I asked if Craig could hear me, another voice came on the line and said, “Hello Mary” – I burst into tears!

The conversation was brief, because at this point he is the only one who knows.  I have no idea what happens next.  But despite what I’m sure was hard news on top of the other hard news, he was very gracious.  He said he would be calling me and looked forward to getting to know me and hopefully we could meet.  And his main assurance was that he would keep me informed as to what was happening in regards to my birthfather’s health.

I’m by no means naive enough to think we will now all be one, big happy family.  I have put myself in their shoes on many occasions, and know that this is a lot to process, on top of their present grief.  But it is still such a HUGE relief knowing that the fact that I exist will no longer die with my birthfather!  For over 20 years, I’ve trusted God to direct the outcome of this thing and I continue to do so.  I’ve prayed and believed that eventually whatever was supposed to happen, would happen.  So I continue to trust God to guide and direct me as I navigate this new stage in my Journey.  And as I do so, I would very much appreciate if you would support me with your prayers!

PS – just as I was finishing this blog post, my birthfather and brother called again!  I had more time to talk with them both and share some things with my brother.  I was very thankful to receive the news that, although the cancer has metastasized to the brain and they are waiting on more test results, with the type and size that it is, they are hopeful that there are treatment options that could bring some good results.  Stay tuned!