Decency Personified

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 6.27.45 AM

I was mostly quiet yesterday. I simply couldn’t speak.

I’d pulled into the parking lot and was just about to run into the grocery store for a few errands when the text message dinged. I couldn’t process the words that Tommy Shewmaker died a few hours earlier. I didn’t even know Tommy was sick. I’m so ashamed. So broken.

It was as if I’d been punched in the heart. I sat there staring at the phone for 15 minutes as paralyzed as I can ever remember. At some point I walked into the grocery store, but couldn’t even remember why I was there.

He’d apparently been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer around Thanksgiving as I was nearing the end of the Camino de Santiago. And he died about 50 days later. It was that fast. I’m devastated, but this isn’t about me.

In a world I fail to comprehend less and less each day, Tommy was one of those men I admired purely because his head was screwed on so straight. His decency surpassed all standards. He was radically good.

Everyone loved Tommy.

We met in 2010 during my short employment at a tech company where I was completely out of my league – a right-brained creative word guy in the midst of a bunch of left-brained geniuses. Tommy was one of them, but he was different. He was so very normal. I mean it as the highest compliment.

He loved his family. Spoke about them all the time. They were his single highest priority. He told great stories and had a voice I always thought belonged on radio. He loved the ribs I’d occasionally cook for a company lunch. Loved sports. Worked out almost every day.  Tommy was a lot of things. But mostly, he was just so kind and decent and normal. I loved that he was so normal. Blessed that he was so kind.

My father passed away about seven months after my hire. Tommy and I were good acquaintances – not close, do-things-together kind of buddies – but friends. Yet, not necessarily at that time the kind of friends who went out of their way for one another. So when from nowhere he walked up to embrace me at my father’s funeral I couldn’t have been more genuinely taken aback. It was Saturday, and Tommy lived 25 miles away. He’d gone exceedingly out of his way to comfort me. He just showed up. It’s one of the kindest gestures I can ever remember, yet so much more than simple gesture. It was an action from Tommy’s heart. He mourned for me. It’s incomprehensible that I mourn him today.

God, he was such a decent man.

When I left the company we stayed in touch. Tommy loved travel.

About this time last year, he wrote me with several questions about Ecuador and the experiences I’ve had living there off and on the last three years. He said he was thinking about retirement, albeit a few years away. He spoke of the responsibilities he had to family, especially his grandchildren, and yet his sense of adventure longed for parts unknown. He wanted to explore Latin America as a possible outpost for retirement, and making the most of his retirement dollars. It thrilled me to speak with him about it, and share my ideas. I mostly just enjoyed that it was Tommy.

We should make a point to get together and talk about it over a cold beer, I wrote. Come to my house … I’ll break out the grill for those ribs you love, I said. He agreed we would make the appointment to catch up and discuss our mutual interest in so many things.

That sit-down never happened. I never saw Tommy again. He crossed my mind a few days ago. I should give him a call, or write him a note, I thought, before moving on to the next “important” thing. Tommy was dying and I didn’t even know it. Now he’s gone.

As I lay in bed last night I couldn’t help but think how selfish it was to be so sad that Tommy’s gone. I know where he is. I should celebrate what he’s now experiencing this very minute. I wish I could hear him speak of it in that crystal-clear baritone voice with that laugh so genuine to the pit of his gut. You could hear Tommy laugh across the building. His joy was effusive.

He was a passionate servant to his family. Purely decent. Humble. Real.

Can there be a greater compliment to a man? I think not.

Rise high in Glory, Tommy Boy. I miss you.

Thank you for being my friend.

-30-

 

A Funny Thing Happened in the Office of Immigration

March 12, 2013

Dear Fund Your Life Overseas Reader,

It isn’t vital that you speak Spanish when you live or work or start a business in Latin America. You can get by without it.

But when you’re faced with the type of situation Steve endured in Ecuador, it sure does help if you speak some of the local language…

Rob Carry

Editor in Chief, Fund Your Life Overseas

P.S. Learning Spanish doesn’t have to be a long, dull process. Cut down on the hard work with this simple, 20-minute strategy.

IL Masthead

* * *

Of Course You Don’t Have to Speak Spanish:

But Why Wouldn’t You?

By Steve Watkins

It was an hour-long drive to the nearest Office of Immigration. Long enough to imagine the worst of scenarios as we headed north to extend our Ecuador visas. A meeting like this needs to go smoothly—no hiccups. But we were still very much in the process of learning to speak Spanish.

Once we arrived we checked in, took a number, and then spent the 45-minute wait running over all the potential language barrier possibilities.

“Numero cuarenta y siete,” called the receptionist. 47. We were up to bat. I wiped my brow and proceeded down the corridor as various verbs, prepositions and conjunctions ran through my mind.

“Gina, mi Espanol es no perfecto,” I told our case worker before we kicked off. I was hoping to score a few points for being a modest gringo. “No problem,” she responded in her native tongue.

From there we proceeded to navigate the process fairly smoothly. We completed the forms, handed over the documentation…it was all going great. Until it came to a question about my occupation.

“What is your profesión?” asked Gina in Spanish. I searched for the word in my mind so she would understand that I’m a writer.

“Escritor,” I responded.

A moment passed. She seemed surprised and almost more respectful.

“Predicador?” She loudly repeated what she thought she heard me say…loud enough for the entire office to hear.

I looked at my wife, Dana, and she looked at me. “She thinks you’re a preacher,” Dana said.

“Not a preacher, a writer!” I said, “but I suppose I preach a lot when I write.” Everyone in the immigration office burst into laughter. Any sense of nervousness or apprehension vanished, we wrapped up the process and we were out of there within minutes.

It’s the question I’m most often asked by exploring expats: “Do I have to know Spanish to live in Latin America?”

And my response 100% of the time is: No, you don’t have to…but you really should.

Imagine going to your favorite restaurant on a Friday night and ordering a succulent dish. You’ve been anticipating this all week, and finally the waiter places the steamy, savory platter before you.

But wait. All you can do is smell it. No tasting allowed.

For me, that’s the equivalent of not knowing Spanish in Latin America. Why would you pursue half an experience when with just a little effort, you can have the whole empanada?

I’m a blue-eyed, fair-skinned American whose appearance screams “gringo,” the moment I walk into a room. No one in Ecuador expects perfect Spanish from me, but I know they respect me for making the effort.

-30-

Carnival in Ecuador

The world stops when it’s Carnival in Ecuador.

It’s yet another time when nationals from all across the country descend on the coast for the four-day holiday, and many of them come to Puerto Cayo. It’s probably the busiest I’ve seen this town since our arrival.

And it is major, big-time hot here today.

Umbrellas everywhere. Why? Because on a sunny day like today at this latitude, 30 minutes in the sun can  send a fair-skinned gringo to the hospital.

Umbrellas everywhere. Why? Because on a sunny day like today at this latitude, 30 minutes in the sun can send a fair-skinned gringo to the hospital.

Carnival in Ecuador

We traded some snacks with these three young girls who were catching a little shade near our beach spot. Here's the thing about shade and shadows on the equator. From 11 a.m. to 1 or 2, shade is almost non-existent because the sun is directly overhead.

We traded some snacks with these three young girls who were catching a little shade near our beach spot. Here’s the thing about shade and shadows on the equator. From 11 a.m. to 1 or 2, shade is almost non-existent because the sun is directly overhead.

A new buddy who was kind enough to share a little lunch with me.

A new buddy who was kind enough to share a little lunch with me.

Carnival in Ecuador

This may not be so impressive to you, but when a stage like this goes up on the beach in Puerto Cayo, a serious (and very loud)  party is only hours away. Ecuadorians take their party music very seriously.

This may not be so impressive to you, but when a stage like this goes up on the beach in Puerto Cayo, a serious (and very loud) party is only hours away. Ecuadorians take their party music very seriously.

Carnival is a time when it's pretty much okay for young children to pull pranks... water guns, water balloons, etc. The diablitos (little devils) also purchase this colored foam to spray on unsuspecting victims.

Carnival is a time when it’s pretty much okay for young children to pull pranks… water guns, water balloons, etc. The diablitos (little devils) also purchase this colored foam to spray on unsuspecting victims.

Biggest hat on the beach.

Biggest hat on the beach.

Snowcones for 50 centavos. It always makes me think of the Tropical Sno stand in our home town where we often pay $5.

Snowcones for 50 centavos. It always makes me think of the Tropical Sno stand in our home town where we often pay $5.

Again, the importance of shade cannot be overstated, even if you're on the move.

Again, the importance of shade cannot be overstated, even if you’re on the move.

Our local restaurants are packed.

Our local restaurants are packed.

A Birthday Gift to Myself: The Way of St. James

Carnival in Ecuador

On my 47th birthday earlier today, checking out the sites on the first real day of Carnival.

“I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”  ~ Herman Melville

February 10, 2013.

My 47th birthday. Oh, the humanity.

I’ve almost always given birthday presents to myself. Over the years, sometimes I’d show others what I’d given myself. Other times, I’d keep it private.

The most special gifts I’ve given myself are challenges, or commitments that I’d make for the sake of nothing more than the personal satisfaction of facing the challenge itself.

On my 38th birthday, I challenged myself to run a marathon before I was 40. I did three. More recently I proclaimed I’d be a published author by the end of 2012. Still working on that one. But it will come to pass.

Those who know me best, know one of the things that keeps me motivated and at my best, is when a great challenge, or adventure, lies ahead. It took me 28 years to beat my best buddy in a single round of golf, but I never quit.

In 47 years I’ve learned that adventure rarely creates itself, so today, I’ve given a birthday gift to myself.

The narrow path, or The Way.

The narrow path, or The Way.

I’ve given myself permission to plan for a new adventure.

Within the next two years (sometime before my 50th birthday) I’ll go on a great pilgrimage to walk the Way of St. James, or the Santiago de Compostela, or the Camino de Santiago, whatever you wish to call it. It’s the 500 kilometer pilgrimage to the burial place of James, brother of John.

Completing the camino should take about 75 days of steady walking.

With a little help from Wikipedia, here’s some information on the camino.

The Way of St. James

The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, along with that of Rome and Jerusalem.

Legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The Way of St. JamesThe Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly traveled. However, the plague of the Black Death and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. In present day, the route attracts a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. The Way was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987. It was also named one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

The Way of St. James

***

The pilgrimage to Santiago has never ceased from the time of the discovery of St. James’ remains, though there have been years of fewer pilgrims, particularly during European wars.

***

The Christian origin of the pilgrimage has been well documented throughout the centuries.

To the End of the World

The main pilgrimage route to Santiago follows an earlier Roman trade route, which continues to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, ending at Cape Finisterre. Although it is known today that Cape Finisterre, Spain’s westernmost point, is not the westernmost point of mainland Europe, the fact that the Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world or Land’s End in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as such. 

To this day, many pilgrims continue past Santiago de Compostela to finish their journeys at Cape Finisterre.

Scallop Symbol

The Way of St. JamesThe scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.

Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol The Way of St. Jamesconcern the death of St. James, who was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 AD. According to Spanish legends he had spent time preaching the gospel in Spain, but returned to Judea upon seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on the bank of the Ebro River.

Version 1: After James’ death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, the body washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
Version 2: After James’ death his body was mysteriously transported by a ship with no crew back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As James’ ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on the shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and the horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim. As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.

Why do I want to walk The Way? Because it’s there, and life’s too short not to. And I have no idea what the experience will bring, but I know something’s waiting.

-30-