Changes in Attitudes

This morning, waiting for her school bus, I overheard Katherine say, “Come on bus, I want to go to school.

Stunned at what I was hearing, I stopped my reading of the news and looked at her. She must have felt it as she turned to me and said, “Can’t believe I just said that.”  Me neither. Our daughter who last year, on more than one occasion, refused to go to school  is actually looking forward to it.

Miracles still happen, folks. Amazing. Big smiles all around in the Thornton-Vander Plaats household.

Entering seventh grade, Katherine gives two thumbs up to school. She’s got all the bases covered.  If she finds good friends, great.  If not, she likes being alone and all will be well. After all, she says, she has her online Minecraft community.  I tell her that online communities aren’t really real. Her comment, “They’re nicer than reality, mom.

Last year was pretty rough. She cried, I cried, David didn’t know what to do.

I had no idea how much one can hurt for someone else until Katherine entered my life. My she-bear comes out often. I’m learning  the painful fact that she has to learn how to deal with her own battles. I can support, cheer her on, offer suggestions and pray til my knees are raw, but my daughter has to walk into her spanish-speaking classroom and deal with the unknown for six hours a day. Or endure racist comments and reactions. Or feel like the gringa even though her skin matches that of the children she plays with.

She’s been a trouper this summer– taking 10 hours of spanish a week and making great progress. Her spanish teach has taught Katherine to cook empanadas and a  national Ecuadorian dish with hominy that I can’t spell. Blanca has helped Katherine learn to sew, taken her to the park, kept her busy and helped her develop confidence in her speaking ability. Now, so sure of her capabilities, Katherine has taken it upon herself to judge the accuracy of my spanish.  Alas, this has caused more than minor irritation–but her intentions are good!

It seems I am now the cause of great embarrassment to her. How I interact with people on the street. How I pronounce (or mispronounce) words. When I ask the taxi driver or person in restaurant how to pronounce something (OH, MOM, I’m so embarrassed!).

So we are settling in to a new routine. Daughter takes the bus at 7 am. I move to the computer to write. David walks out the door to conquer more streets of Cuenca.


Everywhere we look we see flashbacks to the past. Remember these?

Now on our seventh month here, he has already surveyed about 1/4 of the city’s calles!

I’ve decided to seriously rethink about my activities and limit the time I spend outside the house. Writing is what I want to do and feel compelled to do…so my intentions are to carve out the space to do just that.

Life in Cuenca enables expats to be as busy as they choose. If you have an interest, there’s probably a group to do it. From poker to pets, investments to crafts, biking, hiking, cooking, reading, coloring, wining and dining, tennis, writing, spirituality, performing, volunteering.  Like something? You’ll find others with similar interests. It’s very easy to get too busy.

I have grown to love this city.  I doubt we will ever return to the USA to live permanently. I continue to struggle with walking on crooked, uneven sidewalks.  I am looking for a good walking stick. But that is a small price to pay for the lovely vistas, the kind people, the cool air and brilliant blue sky. And now that Katherine is warming up to the place, this will no doubt be the  place we continue to call home.


Homes everywhere, old next to new. Add-ons, tack-ons, lean-tos. Add a room as the family grows. Sure there are high end homes, but we prefer to ooh and ahh over homes such as these.

In less than one week we are to be graced with dear friends from the States.  This will be our first opportunity to show off our new home and we are excited. I’m discovering all the dust our housekeeper has missed and windows that need washing. Katherine anticipates the arrival of Leon and Lou because they are bringing three bags of candy from the Dollar Store.  David just keeps walking!

Life is good friends. We continue to follow the news closely in the US and it grieves us to read so much negativity.  The land of plenty looks less and less plentiful from abroad.  Except it is home to so many wonderful friends and family.  You we miss and long to see again.

I feel I’m rambling. Let’s call this a letter rather than a blog, shall we?  Love to all.


High on the Inca Trail

Cuenca offers people more than enough opportunities to stay as busy as they like. I am beginning to think I’m too busy.  I take Spanish three days a week, am in two writing groups and a contemplative spirituality group. Plus I have a standing appointment every Tuesday.  Enough, I say!  Enough!

But it is all good.

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Helmet, knee pads & elbow pads keep this speed demon relatively safe on the curves.

Katherine has stayed quite busy this summer with inline skating classes every morning along with two different Spanish classes, which occupies a significant part of her Mondays thru Fridays. She collapses on the weekend–says she needs her alone time.  We hardly see her Saturday and Sunday. And the great news is, we hardly hear complaints about how miserable she is.  I believe she’s found her groove in Ecuador.  It also helps that she’s also found a new friend, Jessie. For the time being, all is well at Ricardo Darquea Granda 2-104.

School starts the first week of September and she will be entering 7th grade.  She skipped a grade here but will also be going through grade 13. We haven’t told her that yet.

David stays busy hoofing it all over the sprawling city. He returns from his long treks and marks the city map with yellow highlighter. The web of yellow grows by the day. I believe he is seeing more of the city than many native Cuencanos have. Our taxi-driver friend, Miquel, says David ‘s knowledge of our city is pretty impressive.

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David’s found his favorite house so far in Cuenca. A refurbished adobe.

My  morning Spanish class ended last week and, to wrap it up,  we took a day trip to a small mountain village, Gonzol, about 3.5 hours north of here.  David and Katherine accompanied me, Katherine being the only child among 40 retirees. She was a trooper.

This agricultural community works hard to raise corn, barley, wheat and other crops on the steep slopes of the Andes. They work cooperatively, helping each other plant and bring in the crops. Farmers come together for a minga  when crops are ready to be harvested. Once the work is completed, a feast is held to celebrate. People depend on each much more in communities like this. The village coop has even purchased two trucks to carry crops for all its members to market.

As a way of supplementing their income (the average earnings per family in Gonzol is $500 a year), the residents are hoping to create business ventures to benefit the entire town. The first idea in the works is to provide tourists with an opportunity to see Inca ruins, experience life in a small village and enjoy the grandeur of the Andes.

Our class was the “test” run for the villagers.  We were greeted with big smiles and a hot traditional fermented drink as we got off the bus. ( I opted for café.)  After a brief introduction, four men accompanied us in small groups on the hike up the mountains to the ruins.

Our entourage quickly grew in number as a few children joined in the parade. Then two of three older boys riding horses passed us ear-to-ear grins. A nursing mother with infant appeared. And a wizened cowboy dressed in tiger-trimmed leather jacket regaled us with stories. In español, of course.

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David made it to the top.This view from the ruins shows Gonzol at the bottom left. 

We visited the site of very recently discovered Inca ruins. Well, many did.  I didn’t quite make. Another woman and I opted to rest on the trail and talk with Katherine about the Kardashians, conspiracy theories and the Illuminati.  We met the group on their way down and headed back to town for lunch.

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Katherine amid poppies

After our almuerzo of chicken soup, queso,maize and habas (fava beans), we were introduced to various activities of the villagers. Three elderly women, wrinkled and bent with gnarled fingers and dusty black bowlers demonstrated crushing barley with stones and spinning wool by hand.

I left this tiny, struggling community with a deep appreciation for the hard work and determination of the Cañari people, along with their warmth and kindness. We all left

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A view of the other side from the Inca ruins. All along the steep slopes farmers grow crops. The amount of work put into one small plot of ground is mind-boggling. 

being called “sisters and brothers” and “family” by our hosts.  What an amazing experience.

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This young man showed up during our hike. In the background, note the plots of land that are used for planing. Odd shapes, crammed into every possible arable acre, are separated by walls made of cleared rocks. No machinery, all work is done by hand.

A remarkable day. One filled with breathtaking vistas, gentle people, warm smiles, gentle breezes and a warm sun.

I commented to my new friend Anna (whom Katherine really likes) as we were hiking along, high in the Andes on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, “This is my life. This is not a vacation. I am walking towards new Inca ruins with friends from all over the world and this is my life.”

Amazing. Simply amazing.


i’ve been robbed

my adrenaline is going back to its normal level.

my tear ducts have been thoroughly rinsed and cleansed with a profusion of tears.  after all, anyone who knows me knows that tears are my first reaction to any type of emotion.

my heart has resumed its normal beat.

my soul is heavy but also thankful.

i’m safe. alive. and have all my body parts.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 10.23.50close to an hour ago i was robbed at the bus stop. i was waiting for the #16 to take me to Otorongo Plaza for my biweekly Spanish class.  usually several people are waiting with me but today i was alone. i pulled out my phone and, as i was looking at my calendar, i suddenly felt something press up against the side of my head. a young man, with a very unfriendly face, motioned to me to give him my phone.  i resisted and he pressed the object harder into my skull.  i released the phone and then he grabbed my backpack.

i remember thinking i’m going to get killed. i’m dead. i’m gone. but dammit, he can’t have my backpack!

i wrestled with him a bit, tugging backpack back and forth, then i let go remembering (whether correctly or not) that he still had a gun.

he started running away and i followed him, shouting at him in english.  all i could think about was that he had my spanish books and papers.  i chased him around the corner, shouting, “Espanol, espanol!”  He looked at me like i was crazy.  i was crazy.  crazy scared and crazy mad.

he tossed the backpack to his partner who took off down the street as i started pulling on his arm. he looked at me for a few seconds, as if he were weighing whether or not to give the phone back, then he took off.

i tried to follow, but couldn’t.

i freaked out. screaming, sobbing and getting more upset as i realized what was in the backpack.  a credit card.  more than $300 cash (i was to meet someone after the class to pay for something).  keys to the house.  all my homemade spanish flash cards.

two young women passed me on a motorcycle and stopped when they saw (or heard!) my distress.  they asked if i had been robbed. i nodded and pointed to the  men.  they immediately turned their moto around and took after them. they chased them into feria libre (the huge market) and lost them.

they returned to check on me. a group of about thirty to forty other Ecuadorians surrounded me on the corner, all talking to me in Spanish and looking with such concern. several said, “policia” and nellie and rosie (the two women on the moto) said they would take me to the station.

we walked several blocks to the nearest precinct but didn’t get much accomplished because i spoke such poor spanish and they spoke very little english.  after 10 minutes or so, we left and returned to the house. here we could communicate with the use of Susana, David and my landlady, who speaks very good English.

my two young heroines stayed at the house for about twenty minutes, refused any cash that Susanah offered them and, before leaving, invited me to meet them in the park tomorrow morning for dance therapy. i agreed, as i have been thinking of taking the class.  [twice a day, the city offers free dance classes for exercise in all the city parks. tomorrow i join.]

david is currently canceling the credit card.  my phone is lost but fortunately no important information was on it that can result in lost money.  all my contacts are gone (i hadn’t figured out the cloud thing).  we are out of a large sum of money but it is just money.  i hate that i’ve lost all my spanish material…but that can be replaced.  and i have my head on my shoulders and my life continues.

i do not like feria libre.  i will not go there again.  i will find another bus stop to take or i will go by taxi.  i will carry little money and what i carry will be in my shoe.  no more iphones.  they are totally silly in this environment…IMHO. i will be more alert when i walk around, especially when i’m by myself.  and, i will pray for those two young men.

i really will. the one who approached me had such emptiness in his eyes and hardness in his face.  he couldn’t have been more than 21 or 22…and to be so angry, violent and aggressive at such a young age is such a waste.

i’m thankful for safety.  for two unknown young women who were my heroines.  truly.  they took off on their motorcycle to track down my assailants without hesitating.  they showed true compassion and kindness.  i will meet them in dance class and i will get healthier. i have made two new friends.  i experienced a crowd of strangers encircle me and surround me with concern and sympathy.

i have a landlady who made communication easier.  a safe home to find comfort in and a husband who got to work immediately helping make things right.

just this morning i was reading about wisdom.  and contemplation.  and praying.  and letting go of things that interfere with my focus on God.

this is a great opportunity to put what i’m learning into practice.

deeper than the adrenaline and fear, more profound than the shock and violation of the robbery is the assurance that i am not alone. that what occurs is not all that it seems. beneath my  tears and my anger i experience thankfulness for safety, awareness that I was protected, and surprise at the goodness and kindness of strangers.

i have been robbed.

i’ve also had my eyes and heart opened with new awareness of all that is important.

i am so very thankful.

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 10.26.40i just wish i had all my spanish flashcards.


Our first Easter in Ecuador

Growing up, our kitchen at 701 Sycamore would never grace the cover of Better Homes & Gardens nor be featured in an article unless it was titled Can This Interior Be Saved?  And if Greenfield, Illinois ever held an annual tour of homes in the 1950s, the Presbyterian parsonage would certainly never be showcased.

My mom, Mary Scott Gash Thornton, came into this world without a decorating bone in her body. Instead, God saw fit to bestow her with two gifts which in my opinion cover a multitude of design faux pas: music and an amazing ability to make guests feel loved and welcome.

Her Tchaikovsky and Mozart were flawless. And that made the front room — the piano room — the best space to be when she chose to stop what she was doing, walk to her piano and start to play.

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Car alarms: learning to let it go

We’re entering week three today. The sun shines bright in my Ecuadorian home and cool breezes blow. People–old and young– continue to make me smile. The weather never ceases to delight. The meals satisfy with good taste and affordability. We are not yet cooking at home as we’re in vacation mode, though Katherine makes a mean bowl of pasta on occasion.

However, all is not perfect in Eden. We had been warned. But surely, we thought, how upsetting can car alarms be?

Quite a bit if you let them.

The stillness of this beautiful morning has been shattered at least 8 times within a few hours with ear-piercing sounds that no one seems to heed or feel the need to stop.

My emotions have transitioned from curiosity to bemusement to irritation to borderline anger to blessed resignation. I can either let these sounds bug me to death or I can use them as an opportunity to work on my control issues. I can embrace the decibels and move on with my  new day.

And that’s what I choose to do. No irritating car alarm system will get the best of me. Still I wonder… does it do anyone one whit of good to have an alarm to which no one responds?

And why in the world own something that is such a nuisance to yourself and to others?

[There one goes again.  Let it go, let it go, let it go…]

As I deal with this David is out tracking down an Apple repair person in our fair city. Seems his computer has shut down and refuses to release any of the information we need to do taxes.  He’s hiking across town with said computer in tow to drop it off. Then he will hike a little farther to a shop advertising cast iron skillets (for a limited time only!).  We’re so excited about getting our own skillet.

Wow, things have certainly changed from the US of A!

Katherine is doing her half-hour of Duo Lingo online (free Spanish lessons on-line that are really quite good) and then we are heading out to purchase one, two or three paraquas (umbrellas). Might grab lunch at a new vegetable and juice bar/cafe. MUST get Katherine interested in something besides pasta.

Here are a few things I observe as I look out my window:

Women seem to be still very much the beasts of burden. Couples walk by and (most of the time) she is the one carrying the baby, the groceries, and/or a purchase or two. I’ve watched an older woman trot along toting a 5-gallon plastic container in a sling on her back. Her companion enjoyed his hands-free stroll.

No condemnation…just observation.

Another …I see little to no junk mail here. Of course, we get no mail here at the apartment.  And I’ve not seen a postman or woman anywhere. (Perhaps one picks it up at the post office?)  How does a society function without the deluge of junk mail that I helped create for so many years?  The free offers and must-have products that guarantee to revolutionize life as we know it?  And where are all the mail order catalogs?  This second-world country (or is it an emerging nation?) is growing and prospering without the proliferation of direct mail marketing.

A good thing in my opinion–and a good thing I’m retired.

[Again with a car alarm.]

Changes are coming to this country.  The other day, David passed a store advertising iPhones, with so any customers he couldn’t enter the store. An expat I spoke with the other day says the biggest change he’s seen in his 10 years living in Cuenca is the amount of traffic. And the number of gringos! I want to be contributing good things to this amazing culture, not bad.

All around, I sense calmness and unhurriedness. People, for the most part, seem relaxed and happy. Not all are, I know. But something  is different here. I read recently of a study that shows happiness is part of the DNA of people living in Latin American.( story).

[Car alarm #11 just went off]

Time has passed.  David has returned empty handed.  Computer left for repair.  No skillet. We went out to a late lunch. Katherine discovered French toast with fruit and cream cheese is an excellent alternative to pasta (thank heavens)!  I continued my hunt for the best hamburger in Cuenca (this one was good but short of the excellent one enjoyed last week for menos dollares).

A leisurely walk home and time for a nap. Crazy sleeping patterns again–up at 4:30 am. I’m back to my old work schedule.  David and Katherine left for the park and 35 cent ice cream cones.

[Car alarms 12 through 16.  I can let them go.]

I’m claiming some of this Latin America DNA and choosing to enjoy life.





Rainy days and cleansing rituals

When Ecuador says rainy season, they mean rain. Every day.  Not torrential downpours, but slow, steady, erratic cloudbursts. The sky can be clear and the sun strong.  Then claps of thunder and the sky opens.

Being a person who enjoys seeing the heavens cry, I am perfectly content. (However, Katherine and I have decided that we  must have umbrellas for protection from the rain and the sun.)

I had hoped to make it to church this morning. But the outing was called due to weather. We didn’t feel like showing up looking like drowned rats and we didn’t know the exact location to tell a taxi.  So next week we’ll make our appearance.  In the meantime, I’ll find the exact address and get an umbrella.

Yesterday was a first for me.

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Cleansing ritual

I experienced a native cleansing ritual called a limpia. David, Katherine and I  attended a health fair at the Parque de la Madre nearby — a spot that has become a favorite haunt of ours.  While Katherine and her new friend got their faces face painted ( a cat [el gato] and a mouse [el raton]), I shuffled over to the booth with the longest line.

A tent staffed by yachaks (like shamans) of one of the indigenous  tribes offered traditional cleansing rituals using a combination of incantations and medicinal plants.

Google describes a limpia as  a spiritual cleansing, used to cleanse the body, mind, and soul of negativity. It is known to remove bad luck, blockages, confusions, bad karma,  imbalances, helps with addictions, phobias, and fears. Limpias are supposedly powerful for removing spiritual illness, and helps with physical health problems as well but this is not a replacement for visiting your doctor. 

The limpia brings peace, rejuvenation, protection, clarity, and opportunity your way. It attracts prosperity and blessings, balances the chakras, and much more.

Well, there’s been a bit of that negative thinking going around in my head, so I stepped right up.

And the flogging began!

I was beaten soundly about the head, ears, shoulders, arms, front and backside, legs and feet with a bundle of herbs. I had oil poured on my hair. The yachak spit a liquid on my face, stomach and back. I had another liquid  poured down the back of my neck.  She painted small black crosses on my forehead, above my belly button and on my back.  And all the while she was chanting.  I closed my eyes and took it like a grownup.

The process lasted only a few minutes.  She didn’t use an egg which is part of many limpias, nor did she blow smoke in my face.  Time was limited as dozens more people, young and old alike, stood waiting for their chance at ridding themselves of negativity.

I gave her a few dollars and left, carrying with me an exotic fragrance that clung to me the remainder of the day.

David and our new Fujian friend, Kini, asked if I felt different. While I wasn’t transformed, I actually did feel somewhat lighter, more refreshed, and a bit more centered. 

Before me in line was a couple with four young children. All six went through the ritual though the youngest (about 4) was none too pleased at first.

After watching some indigenous dances and visiting other booths — an unlikely combination of a blood pressure station staffed by the local medical school, limpias performed by vachaks,  sixth graders from Katherines new school  demonstrating whoa, go and stop foods, and fresh produce from the local market, we sat on the grass, indulged in bowls of fresh fruit purchased from the local Boy Scout troop ($1 each) and discussed life in Fiji, Ecuador, and the USA.


La Parque de las Madres with friends

Our common consensus:  our lives are very good in Cuenca.

Fast forward six or so hours. Katherine was beat and wanted no more social life. David and I let her and  went out to one of our favorite new restaurants: Chill and Grill.

We got there early enough (long line when we left) and were seated and served right away. The quesadillas are…delicious. The $18 bill wasn’t nearly as inexpensive as the lunch we shared on Friday (three almuerzos for $5.25 total) but worth every single dollar.


Quesadillas, Ecuadoran-style

Home to rest. Later in the evening, David looked out the window to see wedding photos being taken on the bridge outside our apartment. New beginnings are everywhere it seems. Hope their new life is as beautiful as ours feels.


Wedding pictures outside our window

David found the following particularly interesting and wanted me to share.  At the park, two basketball games were being played simultaneously on the court while only four people were participating in the soccer game.  Not saying basketball is taking over, but the fact that the two teams took over the soccer court struck David as odd.  Hence the photo.

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Two basketball games overtake soccer playing field