The photo above shows a sign I keep on the pantry door of our little Casa Azul in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador. It has a purpose. Probably not the one you think.
On the exterior, I can be just about whatever you need at the moment. Extrovert? It’s not my natural style, but I can play it well enough just about any time if that’s what you need. I made a good part of my livelihood as an adjusted-style extrovert. Curmudgeonly hermit-like introvert? Yes, it comes quite naturally, thank you. Business guy in suit and Johnson and Murphys? Sure, no problem. Country farmer with dirt underneath his fingernails. Even easier.
But my comfort zone is being my own boss making enough money to pay bills and travel a couple of times a year, and focusing on whatever my limited attention span is interested in for the next few months. I don’t mean that in an egotistical or sarcastic way. In fact, up until not so long ago my proclivity to boredom was the think I disliked most about myself. But during the last year it’s a simple truth truth I’ve accepted – even embraced – and knowing who I truly am, supercedes most, but not quite all, things these days.
I’m no longer caught up in things like image, public opinion, social status, or chamber of commerce award banquets. I just kind of like to be my own guy. Is that so wrong?
It’s easier some places than others. If nothing else, Ecuador has taught how to chill every expectation.
There’s a radical and immediate shift in time somewhere between Arkansas and Ecuador. I’m a high-strung traveler, anxious on airplanes, exhaustively pro-active in heading off unwanted potential surprises, hyper conscious of where everything is all the time. Travel Mode begins the night before a trip and doesn’t end until wheels down at whatever destination. It took me a while to learn that wheels down in Ecuador means time moves sideways into a different dimension.
High-strung doesn’t work here. And you’d better lose the attitude fast if you don’t want to drive yourself and everyone around you nuts.
I recall the time a carpenter finally showed up at the house a week after the initial appointment. He came in, surveyed the work, and immediately left because he didn’t bring his hammer. “Back in an hour,” he said. It’s always, “back in a hour, or tomorrow, maybe.”
The time three guys made an emergency call to save us from raw sewage overflowing a septic tank onto our back yard? You don’t even wanna know.
We have a water shortage here. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get it through a municipal line. Other times, you call a tanker to fill your cistern. Need a shower desperately? The tanker guy will be there when he gets there.
Sometimes I’ll hear people talk with a wistful romanticism about their travels to exotic locations such as Cancun, Fiji, Madrid or maybe Puerto Vallarta. “Time stands still,” they say, dreamily imagining a life with so many umbrella drinks.
Maybe so, but in Ecuador, time gets turned upside down and “beach time” isn’t always the most romantic thing in the world. The key word in the sign on my pantry is “Relax.”
It isn’t perfect, but life is good in Ecuador.
Remember the pop-up videos on VH1?
I enjoyed those little factoids and tidbits because they revealed things you’d never know, even if you watched a hundred times. I’ve always enjoyed knowing the story behind the story. It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on what everyone else just wants you to see.
If you enjoy House Hunters International, and tune in to our show tonight, here are a few things you’d never know without reading this post.
*The entirety our show was filmed in chronological reverse. We filmed in Ecuador for three days, came home to the U.S., and filmed the “back story” 10 days later. Furthermore, the first scene we filmed in Ecuador was the “reveal” scene at our home, one of the last things you’ll see on the show. It went backwards from there.
*Two days before we began filming in Ecuador I walked outside to our backyard and smelled a terrible stench. It was as if something had died very nearby, times 10. Further investigation proved that our three-month old septic tank had backed up and was overflowing into the yard and toward the house. Panic ensued. We were unable to flush our toilets for about 36 hours, and some very unfortunate Ecuadorian workers had the job of pumping barrels of raw sewage from our septic tank 12 hours before the HGTV crew arrived. I felt so bad for them. Such is life in Ecuador.
*The “realtor” on our show is an American named Joel Lewis. With his red hair, fair skin and freckles, Joel is a gringo personified. He spends most of his time as an English teacher in nearby Jipijapa. We met only a few days before filming, became good friends, and have stayed in touch.
*One of the opening scenes where we “meet” Joel to provide our wish list was
filmed at Sanctuary Lodge, the very nicest hotel in Puerto Cayo. Sanctuary is owned by our friends Roberto Cristi and Jahaida Delgado, and their daughter Isabella. If you ever visit this part of the world, it’s highly recommended lodging.
*We had the same director, but two different film crews in Ecuador and the U.S. Our Memphis crew had experience filming “Great Balls of Fire,” and worked on several of the John Grisham films made in there.
*One of the homes we filmed in Ecuador was rented by an Australian couple and their three children who spent much of their time on mission for the Jehova’s Witness Church. They are lovely folks, and were actually in the house the whole time we filmed. As we moved from one room to another, so did they, just out of camera sight.
*I’ve always admired talented people who work behind the camera, and our chief videographer in Ecuador, Doron Schlair, is immensely talented. He’s filmed documentaries on Billy Joel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and climbed to the top of Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. I sat down for a long conversation with Doron one night and we were discussing his work – the intricacies and interplay between light and dark. In his work all across the world, Doron told me at sunset, it gets darker in Ecuador faster than anywhere he’s been. I’d noticed the same thing, but never thought about it until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s because we’re on the equator and the earth’s bulge at the horizon is more prominent than other parts of the world. But that’s just a guess.
*You’ll see some scenes of us riding our blue scooter on the beach. During the filming I made a turn on some rocks, and Dana and I shifted our weight in different directions. The result was a pretty good tumble with the scooter landing on both of us. It caused quite the scene on the beach. I know the director thought we were going to sue for damages. We were just really embarrassed.
*You’ll see lots of Ecuadorian people in background shots. Every person you see signed a release for the show. The director was very strict about that.
*There’s a scene at the Agua Blanca mud bath where Dana and I jumped in the water for an impromptu swim race. As we jumped in I accidentally swallowed some of the water (which tastes just like sulfur) and nearly choked. I tried not to let the camera see it because we had to get the shot in one take.
*Speaking of takes, it’s interesting that our entire show was filmed with one camera. But each and every scene is filmed from three different angles. This obviously means each scene is filmed three times, and that’s why it takes 40 hours to film 22 minutes of television.
*In the hours before the crew arrived for Ecuador filming, we were working feverishly to clean the house. As we finished cleaning, and just as I was about to take my shower, on cue, the electricity went out, and stayed out. I filmed the entire first day without the benefit of a shower.
*To make the show interesting, the director always wants a little conflict going on between husband and wife. So for us, it was Dana’s focus on a beach house, versus my interest in staying on budget and living close to the locals.
I can hardly wait to watch the show and see which one we choose!
(Blogger’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories about the experience Dana and I had filming with HGTV’s House Hunters International. The show, depicting our experience of buying a second home in Ecuador, should air in late August or early September. Here’s the link to the first post in the series: http://wp.me/p2bjEC-1bh)
Linda Benya’s spent her entire career telling stories. And for her, telling stories about others people’s’ adventures around the world keeps life exciting, and fulfills a real artistic talent.
And it doesn’t hurt that she’s always been a big fan of House Hunters International, a show for which she directs more than 20 episodes a year.
“Even as a director, I still approach the show as a fan. I think I’ve always had a real wander lust for meeting people and going places in other countries and learning just what you can get for your money,” Linda said. “I love going into people’s homes and seeing how they live. And that’s the appeal for everyone who enjoys the show, I think.”
A graduate of New York University Film School, Linda worked both on and off camera early in her career. She worked on Animal Planet’s “Dogs 101,” “Cats 101,” and “Pets 101,” as well as “Selling New York” and “The Martha Stewart Show.”
She’s produced shows with the likes of Dancing with the Stars’ Tom Bergeron and hosted on camera with Jeff Probst.
It was at the conclusion of filming a “Dogs 101” episode that she struck up a conversation with a videographer who mentioned he was flying to Columbia on assignment the next day.
“I asked him what he was up to and he said he was heading out for a shoot with House Hunters International. I told him I loved that show, and he said I’d be great.”
Even so, her career went on and Linda said there was a time when she spent six consecutive months working an “office job” for “Selling New York.” For someone like Linda, six months in an office is a long time.
“After those six months, I looked at myself in the mirror one day and said, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I’ve got to get back out into the field.”
The rest was history, and that moment led her to a steady opportunity with House Hunters.
For Linda, directing House Hunters International is a job that fits her professional talents, creative personality, and her interests in pushing her own comfort zones.
“There are a ton of responsibilities with this. You fly into a country where you’ve never been, meet up with some freelance assistants you’ve probably never met and you don’t know the culture. You hit the ground running and are required to keep an American schedule in a different culture and that almost never works,” she explained. “And it’s your job to be the creative manager in capturing all this reality.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s never boring.”
One of the most challenging aspects of filming a show like House Hunters International is that the scenes aren’t filmed consecutively in the sequence that television viewers may see. It’s all about logistics, efficiency and a clock that never stops ticking.
“We’re weaving in and out of a story and really flying by the seat of our pants, but it’s the challenge that makes it fun. I love the challenge that we inevitably have, and I love working with a team.”
Linda uses both her technical and artistic sensibilities in laying the groundwork for capturing hours of video to hand over to producers who create this relatively brief show.
“This doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of time and work that goes into a 22-minute show. On TV it looks like we just stopped by and captured a moment of your life, and that’s exactly the way we want it to look, but in reality, there’s a ton of work that goes into one of these shows,” Linda said.
Pulling the whole thing off is an art form, she said, and requires huge attention to detail.
“You have to be keenly aware of everything that’s happening around you, and you have to know how to key in on what makes it special.” But she’s also very much a manager of personalities. “You have to sincerely like people, and there has to be a genuine curiosity somewhere inside of you. It helps a lot if you get excited about learning and discovering new things.”
As director for the show, she’s required to be a subtle micro manager of details without getting in the way of the story.
“My job is to make sure we capture moments. We don’t make those moments you see on television. We simply capture those moments, and if we do it well, it’s a really entertaining show.
“I’m the band leader and I set the tone. I always tell myself, never to let anyone see me sweat. It’s about being decisive, firm and never letting anyone see whatever internal struggle you may be dealing with in the moment. Then at the same time you balance all that with letting the story play out. Gut instincts are important, and you have to know when one thing is less important than another. The work in putting a show like this together is a constant struggle and decision-making process about what’s most important, and how can I accomplish all I need to get done within all the challenging parameters that we’re working within.”
In the last year, Linda’s directed more than 20 shows with four days of filming each show. She’s been in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Argentina, Sweden, France, Germany, Malaysia and Mexico.
She said she finds some common characteristics among participants who go on the show.
“Everyone has a different reason for why they set up shop in a different country, but I think more than anything, they all have a sense of adventure. Whether it works out or not, you definitely can’t do something like the people do on the show without having a real sense of adventure and learning.”
Just the same, Linda said House Hunters has a common appeal to those who enjoy watching.
“I think people love the show, because to some extent we all have a voyeurist nature. It appeals to a sense of adventure and education, especially about how people live in other places. It gives you a realistic look into the lives of people who are choosing to live differently, and that appeals to a lot of us.”
(Blogger‘s Note: For four days during late March and early April, Dana and I filmed with House Hunters International, for an episode that’s coming up on HGTV in a few weeks. Until then, I’m writing an occasional blog post about the experience. This is the first in the series.)
It was December 21 last year. After building a house in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador for nine months (with 100% of the communications via internet) Dana and I got on a plane, beside ourselves with excitement to fly way South, and spend just more than three months in our new far-away, get-away. Truth is, we really didn’t even know if we’d come back.
In my 47 years it’s among the most exciting adventures I’ve taken.
Three days after our Memphis departure, we arrived, just as the workers were putting the finishing touches on our Casa Azul. That’s actually what everyone calls our house, and it’s even our “official” address, as much as addresses exist in Puerto Cayo.
During the next few weeks, we learned about things like cisterns, suicide showers, scorpions, freshly caught langostinos , driving where driving rules don’t exist, and we “unlearned” everything we thought we ever knew, embracing life in a new culture. I hate the cliche’, but it’s true. Our lives have never been, and will never again, be the same.
Puerto Cayo (key port), is a small and beautiful, but remote village on Ecuador’s central Pacific coast. The town has about 4,000 people with maybe 100 “foreign” expats.
Its remote proximity and small size add to the irony that two couples who ultimately became our friends, had previously done their own shows with House Hunters International. When the filming company that produces the show contacted them about anyone else they knew who might be interested, they recommended us, and the lines of communication quickly opened.
A few days later, we found ourselves Skyping several times zones away with a casting director in London, where it really all begins.
The phone call was surreal. There had been days when things (about life in general) weren’t so hopeful. Just a few years earlier we’d invested all we had in our own business – dynamic publishing company – that was born just about the time the economy crashed. I closed its doors in less than a year, and spent a long time wondering what was next. It was during this uncertain time that we became HHI fans and spent many nights dreaming the craziest of dreams despite the circumstances. It was crazy, irrational and unrealistic that we would dream such dreams. But I’m oh, so glad we did. I’m glad we never gave up on dreaming.
House Hunters International is one of those shows that appeals to both men
and women – especially couples who love adventure and don’t mind stepping out of their comfort zones. And there are many things about buying a house in a far-away country that will NOT feel comfortable.
For 45 minutes on the Skype call we shared our story about all the things that had drawn us to Ecuador … childhood dreams, a crazy sense of shared adventure, and a touch of rebellion, all carefully mixed together with a pinch of mid-life crisis … and I knew the conversation was going well. At the call’s conclusion, casting director Michelle James said she’d like to move the process to the next step, and asked us to produce our own three-minute casting video about us and our lives in Puerto Cayo.
I told her it would be ready in seven days.
I couldn’t believe we were really, seriously talking to the people who could actually make it happen, and that they wanted to continue a conversation with us.
Fortunately, Dana had enough foresight early on to bring a tripod on our trip. Over the next three to four days we filmed in our house, on the beach, shopping in town and any number of places that would help convey life in Puerto Cayo. I was the creative director and logistics guy. Dana was executive producer. Three minutes quickly became seven, and we let the length stand, uploaded it to Vimeo and waited. We thought it would be three to four weeks before we heard a peep from them, if we heard back at all.
Four days later, Michelle responded, said the producers loved it, and invited us to work with them. I’ll never forget telling Dana we were going to be on the show.
In life’s grand scheme it’s pretty insignificant, but it felt wonderfully redemptive.
And filming the show was … so … much … fun.
(Future stories in the series: A feature story on our director, Linda Benya, who talks about why she loves HHI; another profile on our videographer, Doron Schlair, who’s filmed just about every star you can imagine; a behind-the-scenes look at some things that happened during our filming that you’ll likely never see on TV; HHI: is it real or is it fake, you tell me; and what it’s really like to live in Ecuador.)
It’s time to go home.
One hundred days that Dana and I have been in Ecuador now. Beginning today at 10 a.m., we’ll drive an hour to Manta, take a domestic flight into Quito, cool our heels 8 hours in the new Mariscal Sucre International Airport, fly all night to Atlanta, run through customs, and take a final leg into Memphis. An hour’s drive later, we’ll be home. Jonesboro, Arkansas. It’s a 24-hour travel day.
Our emotions have run the gamut here. Especially in the last week.
In the first two months we felt everything you can imagine. Excited, anxious, curious, hopeful, disheartened, uncertain, happy, sad, joyful, desperate, awestruck, blessed, and frustrated just to name a few. Oh, at times how we felt frustration.
Many times, I wondered to myself, “What have we done?” And soon thereafter, it would all come clear. Every single time, it came clear.
We were sent here, on a personal mission of sorts, to learn, and grow and understand. We came here to understand how to be less judgmental, less rigid, less know-it-all perhaps. It’s a good place to learn patience, that’s for sure, and on many occasions to unlearn all the things you thought you ever knew.
I will miss some things in this special place …
*My international friends, especially, Duval and Maria from Ecuador. Samuel from Switzerland. And the way they all talk and laugh about the hyperactive Ethiopian, Marise, who’s building a home with a glass bathroom across the street. They are so concerned they’ll be seeing him “do his business” when nature calls. And I will miss the occasional afternoon beer at Samuel’s place and so many of this fascinating man’s animated stories.
*Watching the progress that other expats are making on their homes, seeing their excitement, and yes, sharing our mutual frustrations in the midst of it all.
*My garden, which is beautiful, but 100 times more difficult to maintain than a garden back home in the states. Searing sun, week-long rains, crabgrass and weeds that can completely take over in 24 hours, never-before-seen insects, an endless list of challenges.
*Early morning scooter rides and the friendly beeps that other moto drivers now give me. Three months ago they would barely return a wave wondering who the heck I was. Today, they enthusiastically say good morning and flash me a wide smile.
*Critters. Lizards everywhere. Weird insects as I’ve never seen. Beautiful birds, even turkey vultures on our front porch. I see a new creature here every single day.
*The sound of the Pacific. Even with our house at 500 yards away, I can clearly hear the sea crashing against the beach. It’s relentless, and wonderful.
During the last three days, I’ve had trouble focusing my emotions, not sure what I felt about any of it. I’ve been happy, and sad.
And when I read Dana’s blog post today, I realized she said it perfectly well.
She wrote … “We have loved the people here, and they have loved us in return.”
And that’s all that matters, anyway, since it’s the only reason we came in the first place.
In one form or another, I’ve worked in mass communications my entire life – and 99 percent of that as a print journalist.
Never, I repeat, never, did I have the ambition to work for a single, solitary moment in broadcast journalism, especially television.
At best, I’ve always had a face much better suited to radio.
So there’s a quirky irony that for the next three days Dana and I will work with a film crew from New York to produce an upcoming 30-minute episode of House Hunters International set to air on HGTV this fall.
Here’s the short story of how it happened.
On December 21, 2012, we left Jonesboro, AR bound for Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, in search of an adventure we’d remember a lifetime. We were looking to put down some roots here on a part-time basis that would allow us to pursue a different kind of lifestyle several months out of the year. One where, above all things, we could immerse ourselves in a different culture, broaden our horizons a bit, and live out a life on mission in a place where circumstances don’t exactly hand you a dozen roses each and every day.
We’ve been here almost 100 days now.
But a month or so into our stay, I received an email from a friend whose family was featured on House Hunters International about six months ago. HGTV was looking for new families interested in filming, and was soliciting the help of their alumni.
So she forwarded the information to me, including a casting contact based London and said we should drop her a line if we were interested.
For years, Dana and I had spent time watching the show, living vicariously through the featured couples who pursued crazy dreams in far away places. We didn’t even think twice about giving it a go.
So early that evening I fired off an email to an HHI casting director, told her our situation, background and a few other details, pretty sure I’d never hear another word. Early the next morning my inbox contained a reply that said, “Let’s talk.”
Honestly, that was pretty exciting.
A few days later, we orchestrated a Skype session from our home base in Puerto Cayo to Michelle James in London. We discussed our goals, our interests, our cultural philosophies, etc. Mostly, I’m pretty sure she just wanted to get a good look at us. By the end of the conversation, Michelle said she’d like to move forward with our story, but we’d need to produce our own four-minute “casting video” to give the producers better insight into our personalities.
We told her we’d have it ready in a week.
Did I mention I am a print journalist?
The next day, Dana and I sat down and drafted a rough film script outlining where we’d film ourselves and doing what exactly…
We filmed ourselves from the top of Puerto Cayo’s overlook, where we’d first seen this picturesque fishing village and its beautiful coast. Took shots on the beach riding our moto-scooter. Shopping and relaxing in Puerto Lopez, and several other special locations. Going into the self-made casting video, the producers told us they really wanted us to express our personalities and give them a glimpse of what we are really like.
We’re not shy. So we let it all hang out and went for broke.
Dana downloaded it all to Vimeo and the producers said we’d hear back in a few weeks. I put it all out of mind, and life went on.
Just a few days later I had an inbox email from London.
I’m quite sure they say this to everyone they bring on, but nevertheless, Michelle said the producers loved our story, and they invited us to come on the show.
Dana was cooking breakfast when I looked up from my computer to tell her.
“House Hunters wants us on the show,” I said.
“What?!” … was her reply … and I think the eggs and toast burned at this point.
Dozens of Skype sessions and a plethora of emails later, we have our casting call today and filming begins at sun up tomorrow. Ten to 12 hours a day for the next three days, and a full day of filming back home in Arkansas on April 4.
The show should air in late July or early August.
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…
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.
* * *
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.