Setting up living quarters in another country isn’t something you do every day. Dana and I always dreamed about it, but until about 18 months ago never knew if things would come together in such a way that we could actually pull it off. So because written communication is what I do, and is actually the way I process things mentally, we decided from Day 1 to take the unique experience and chronicle much of it on my blog so family and friends could take part, too.
The whole ordeal has made for some interesting conversation, and we get lots of questions almost every day about all sorts of things. People want to know what it was like to do what we did, and what it was like to be on the show.
These are some of the questions we’re often asked, and the answers we give:
Q: Is House Hunters International real? I’ve read it’s fake.
A: The short answer is this: It’s television. HHI is a reality show, and in my opinion, an entertaining and educational one. The television medium has lots of restrictions. It’s not easy to convey a couple’s home buying experience on another continent in 22 minutes. So for the sake of television, concessions are made. No one in their right mind flies into a new country, looks at three houses in a day and decides to buy one at the end of the day. Our actual experience in deciding to build a home in Ecuador was a 10-day process, and I would never recommend anyone move as fast as we did because that’s very fast. Still, the producers worked very hard to replicate our experience as best they could, and I think the show will be an accurate reflection of what it’s like to buy a home in Puerto Cayo. It glosses over a lot of the hard stuff, and our experience in building a home and acclimating to a new culture posed some real challenges, but that’s not what the show’s about. Is House Hunters International real? It’s more real than most of the television you probably watch.
Q: What did you enjoy most about being on the show?
A: Dana and I became fans of HHI during a formative time in our marriage. In 2009, the economy and a few bad decisions forced the closure of my publishing business and a career that I loved. For the first time in my life, I was uninspired, very uncertain about the future and pretty depressed. There were many nights when we’d watch the show, and for 30 minutes I’d be rescued from that depression. HHI actually inspired me to dream again, and ultimately took our life, and our marriage, in a direction I never imagined. The day we learned we’d been chosen for the show, it felt like a victory over something that had been a very hard fight. So being on the show was very much a celebration of that victory.
Q: Have you seen the show yet?
A: No. We will see if for the first time when it airs.
Q: What is life like in Ecuador?
A: That’s a lot like asking what life is like in the United States. It depends on where you live. The coastal region where we built our home is not a tourist or expat destination as you might imagine. Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse country and life can be radically different depending on your locale. The Ecuadorian coast is actually very rural, and has a relatively poor economy. Locals make their living fishing, farming or making crafts. The infrastructure (roads, utilities and other basic services) is in its infancy. We’ve driven lots of gravel roads, and became accustomed to very sporadic electric service. I think many times people believed we were sipping pina coladas by a pool every day, and nothing could be further from the truth. Latin America is not for everyone.
Q: So why would you want a home thousands of miles away in a place like that?
A: Many reasons. First of all, because it is the education of a lifetime. Learning to live a new way, and making friends in a different culture is riskiest, and most educational thing I’ve ever done. Dana and I are never more alive than when we are pushing our comfort zones in Ecuador. Secondly, it gives me an entirely different perspective on my writing, and our lives in general. And finally, even though the economy is still very much emerging and developing, we are going to see unbelievable opportunity on the Ecuadorian coast over the next 15 years. I want to see that, and be part of it.
Q: What do you do when you’re there?
A: Mostly, I write a lot and take a lot of photos. Travel and major changes of environment really inspire my writing. But when we’re there, the culture forces us to slow down a lot, and that’s another reason we enjoy it. We spend a lot of time visiting with local friends, sharing new experiences and we learn something new almost every day.
Q: How did you find a realtor?
A: We didn’t. There are some people who call themselves realtors in Ecuador, but most have no formal training or licensing credentials, and a good number of them are fairly corrupt. Not all, just most. Dana and I conducted our search on our own which made the learning curve even higher.
Q: Is it safe in Ecuador?
A: In the US, I think we unfortunately stereotype Latin America to be unsafe. I’ve never been fearful in Ecuador, but I also always use a lot of common sense, and am very respectful of the culture. Any international traveler I’ve ever visited with said the media almost always paints a darker picture than that which really exists, and that’s true all over the world. Ecuador is quite safe.
Q: Biggest challenges?
A: (1) Driving in the big cities is madness. Crazy madness. If you don’t have nerves of steel, avoid it. (2) Always remembering that even though I’m a property owner there, I’m still a guest. This very much requires us to forget everything we think we know about right and wrong, take one day at a time, lose our judgmental nature, and laugh a lot. (3) Knowing that when someone in Ecuador says that something conforms to US standards, it will never be true. Only two or three people in Ecuador even know what US standards (especially in construction) mean. That’s partly joke, mostly truth.
Q: Biggest perk?
A: Gas prices regulated by the government at $1.48 per gallon. No contest.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: I think anyone who builds a home from the ground up knows what it is to have hindsight. We definitely made some mistakes. But do I regret even the most difficult experiences we had? No way. And I’m eager to see what future adventures are in store.
Q: What advice to you have for other people who are even remotely considering doing what you did?
A: (1) Do a lot of research, but understand that no amount of research can substitute an exploratory trip to wherever you may be considering. (2) It’s very easy to get into a mindset that you could never do something like this. Lose that mindset. Barriers are easier to overcome than you think. (3) If you are close to buying a new house in a foreign country, never, never, never close the deal until you personally witness how the property reacts to a heavy rain. Oh, the humanity.
(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.)
After 17 days on the ground in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador, we’ve just scraped the surface on all there is to learn. These are a few lessons from the earliest days of our education:
1. Buying a car. If you think the process of buying a car in the U.S. is distasteful, try haggling in Latin America. The unknowns in buying a used car here are almost limitless. And prices are very high. Because of Ecuador’s import tariffs on vehicles produced outside the
country, most cars and trucks for sale are produced domestically, and with no competition, it means they can pretty much charge whatever they like. It also means that used cars retain their values at high levels. I recently checked out a 2003 Chevy Vitara (like a Tracker in the US) with about 80,000 miles (at least that’s what they claim – it’s probably much higher) and the price was $11,500. You might get it for $10k. Maybe. Here’s the website I’ve been using to shop around: http://www.patiodeautos.com
2. Appliances. Also high. Our small refrigerator was $800; a small gas stove was $550; and a very small washing machine was $700. Appliances, computers and all the things that aren’t absolute necessities will run 50 percent to 75 percent higher than in the U.S.
3. On the other hand, health care at our local clinic is free, and fresh fruits, vegetables, fish, shrimp and other foods are cheap.
4. People in the local culture have been very nice to us. Though our Spanish is flawed with a long way to go, I think they appreciate our efforts to speak the language. They are peaceful, friendly and go out of their way to accommodate our needs.
5. Bugs. There are a lot of them here. We’re still learning all the tricks to keep bugs out of our house at night, and we’re improving each day. And yes, we found a small scorpion in the shower a week or so ago.
6. Driving. If you’re here for any period of time, forget everything you ever learned about defensive driving. It does not exist in Ecuador. It’s ALL offense. When someone from behind gives you a honk, it means, “I’m coming around you, so do whatever you have to do to get out of the way and protect yourself.” Same principle applies in the grocery story. Maneuvering a shopping cart is ALL offense. It’s all about the Big O, baby.
7. The sun. It’s to be respected here. This far South, you are considerably closer to the sun. It can burn a blue-eyed, fair-skinned gringo in minutes without proper protection. It’s also amazing to watch the sun set here. It looks much larger.
8. Water. Also to be respected, and I must say, I’m now ashamed of the manner in which I’ve wasted water most of my life. Our home’s water system is one of the more modern, but still, we do not have an unlimited supply. Our drinking water is purchased in five-gallon containers for $1, but our everyday water for washing, cleaning, etc., comes from a 2,000-gallon cistern, filled by a tanker on a weekly basis. We are now always conscious of our water use. In the shower, I turn the water off several times just to conserve. And I even collect rainwater now to water our garden plants. I’m convinced (and would love to write a book on this) that there may well be a future world war over clean water availability.
9. Business. The opportunities are a bit different than I anticipated during the last eight months, but they are plentiful. Over time, I believe Dana and I will fit into the business community quite well, and that we will earn a good living here. I’m 95 percent sure we locked in our first client yesterday, and that she will give us the opportunity to market five new condominiums she’s building. At $60 to $70 per square foot, they will be a great buy.
10.Elevation. Also to be respected. I’ve lived most of my life at 230 feet above sea level in Arkansas. Go from 230 feet to 9,300 feet over night and you have yourself one heck of a case of altitude sickness. In Ecuador, a 30-minute drive can take you from sea level to 3,000 feet and so you must take time to acclimate. The keys are moving slow, and staying hydrated.
11. Cooking. I’m a decent cook, but I’m learning all over again. Because I haven’t learned about all the seasonings here yet, most of my cooking’s been pretty bland. I now save chicken stock, we use lots of rice, and love the fresh vegetables.
12. Community. I do truly love the sense of community and how everyone works together, especially in the business community. Competition is not feared here, because everyone works together and refers to everyone else, and in the process everyone gets “their piece of the pie.” It reminds me what a banker told me just a few years ago when he said, “…it’s better to have a little bit of something than a whole lot of nothing.” That’s how it works here, and it seems to work quite well.
13. Writing. I’ve never been so inspired to write as I am in this place, and even though I’ve never considered myself a fiction writer, I’m inspired to attempt it now from so many of the amazing things I’ve seen. The days have been so busy the last 17 days, I’m working hard to carve out intentional time for writing.
14. Time. Sun rises here at 6:15 a.m. and sets at 6:30 p.m., and that’s constant throughout the year. So the days are long, and there’s a lot of time to get things done and be very productive.
Now, it’s time for me to go and be that way.
And P.S. – I almost feel guilty for saying it, but we’re having the time of our lives.
In Denmark, they break dishes.
In the Philippines they wear polka-dots.
In Ecuador it seems we burn “scarecrows” at midnight.
It’s a cultural New Year’s tradition we’ve just learned, and it really brightens up the roadways in the last days leading up to New Year’s Day.
Since Thursday or so, Dana and I have noticed colorful papier mache-like characters everywhere. The Hulk. Sponge Bob. Minnie Mouse. You name it. Strapped to vehicles driving down the road, on moto-taxis, prominently adorned on peoples’ homes. They are everywhere, and are called ano veijos “the old years.”
These colorful characters are everywhere, and to the Ecuadorian people, represent all the old problems of the past year. They are burned at midnight as a way to represent a fresh start.
And depending on how much one’s had to drink depends on exactly where, and how, it is burned. Some have told us they can be seen burning on cars as they drive down the road as the clock approaches midnight. Can’t wait to see that.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” ~ Proverbs 29:18
It’s been quite a year.
My dad died in January. Dana and I explored Ecuador in April, bought a piece of land and began building a house. I started writing a couple of books, and considered the world of self-employment once again. Two months ago, my corporate day job was eliminated, forcing the issue of previously considered self-employment. We paid off 90 percent of our debts. And we’re now eight days away from getting on a plane to Quito (December 21 – the day the Mayans claim the world will end, I might add) and driving into Puerto Cayo where our house should be finished and our new venture into the world of global marketing will begin.
Each night before bed, I expect to wake up the next morning in a dream, but it hasn’t happened yet.
October 31, 2009, is a day I’ll never forget.
Nine months prior I’d cashed out well over six figures (everything I had) to launch a new publishing business that I believed was destined for success. I hired the finest people, (many of whom were good friends) bought the best equipment and leased the most advanced facilities I could imagine to put it all in. We were hi-tech, and we looked good.
On the World Poker Tour they would have said I was “all-in.”
But the world had an ace in the hole.
By July I began seeing signs of something I’d never seen before. Getting money was tougher. Selling advertising, even to my closest of business associates, wasn’t like it was before. Businesses were holding back. I had no idea what it was.
It was then, that I understood what recession meant.
Our revenues dried up. Overhead costs were screaming every day, creditors started calling, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.
On the week leading up to October 31, I fired my entire staff of eight and liquidated all our physical assets. Even then, I was $100k in debt, well beyond broke, and for the first time in my life, had NO vision. Not for tomorrow or next week, and certainly not for the next year or five years.
Things went dark very quickly. Very dark. I thought I’d never return the communications business I loved so much. I thought I’d never write again. And for two years, I didn’t.
And when daddy died, it all had to come out. So I created a blog and the world changed.
This blog site became a place of healing. Beyond the steadfast support of my wife, Dana, it was the only such source I ever found. I could write about my failures, my anger, and be transparent about it all because I never really had to look anyone in the eye.
Readers came. Comments rolled in, and slowly and gradually, I started thinking again, and a journey began to finding my former self – one blog post at a time.
After dad died in January, I took a good assessment of life’s brevity. It grew into a desire to explore, and do things I’d never before done. It guided Dana and me to an exploratory trip to Ecuador where there was a defining moment I’ll never forget.
After a nine-hour drive from Guayaquil, we finally arrived on an elevated hill just south of Puerto Cayo, and as I looked at the small fishing village with pristine, uninhabited beach as far as the eye could see, I knew something special would happen there soon, with, or without me.
So we bought a piece of land and started building a house, and managed it all via electronic communication from 6,000 miles away. During that time, we’ve laid the ground work for a family of mass communication marketing companies in a part of the world I like to think of as the New West. Opportunity everywhere. It must have been how Lewis and Clark felt each day as they passed through and explored the Louisiana Purchase en route to the Pacific. A new opportunity around every corner.
They too, must have thought they’d wake up in a dream.
I never thought I’d write again. God got a big laugh out of that one.
“Oh yes you will,” he said. “Just never as you’ve before imagined, my son.”