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.
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: 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.”
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.
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.
It’s a 20-mile drive from our home to the nearest “major town” in the Manabi province. And from our back door to Jipijapa we go from sea level to 2,500 feet in just a few miles.
I recently took note of the various road signs on this drive and how interesting they are. It’s an interesting commute….
(Blogger’s note: I met Samuel Haerri about 10 days or so ago through the introduction of a mutual friend. Sam’s just the kind of guy that tells your intuition he’s a fascinating man. Today, he told me his story.)
“You must have seen the entire world,” I commented an hour into our informal interview as Samuel Haerri recounted the endless miles he’s traveled en route to retirement in Ecuador.
“No, I think maybe just about half the world,” he says before showing me the next photo in his scrapbook.
His scrapbook is actually more of an autobiography he’s assembled through the years. He’s titled it, “My Way to the Sea.” And for this Swiss native, the sea was his way to the world.
“From the time I was 10 to 15 years old, the only wish I had was to be away from home,” Sam said, recalling his father’s beatings that came almost daily. “He was a very harsh man, and as a child I did not know what it meant to be on a ship, or that it would be my escape.”
When his 27-year-old mother took her life, Sam was 5. She was so distraught from her husband’s infidelity that she ended her life by drinking the poison used to kill insects in the grape vineyards.
His father remarried, and his relationship with Sam never improved. At 9, he sent Sam to be evaluated at a psychiatric hospital, and the young boy was ultimately placed in a home for children with 80 other residents.
But a year later when his dad lost a leg in a farming accident, Sam was returned home for work.
“He treated me as an employee, and it was never as a son,” Sam said. “If I did anything wrong, or complained, he hit me.”
Two years later was the start of a new beginning for Sam. His father purchased a restaurant where the 13 year-old began work, and a waitress there, who frequently saw Sam literally beaten “black and blue,” told him the story of her son who’d gone into training as a hand on a river ship.
“I asked her if she could get me an interview and help me meet the shipmaster, and she did help me get all the papers in order. When the shipmaster interviewed me, he said I could begin work in three weeks and when I told my father about it I think he was glad to be getting rid of me.’
“I needed thirty dollars for a suitcase and he would not buy one for me. He sent me away with this old chest,” he said, showing me a photo of an old wicker case. “For me, this was a great shame not to have a suitcase.”
At 15, Sam left home for good, completely and entirely on his own. A young man out to conquer the world, he was.
His first three years in training were on a river boat that sailed between Switzerland and Holland, and in 1967 at 18, he boarded his first sea-going vessel bound for the Hudson Bay.
After 15 years of feeling trapped and being beaten, Sam, for the first time, felt alive on the open sea.
“We made our way into the United States and the drinking age was 21, so we could not drink beer as we liked,” he said. “But we had a mess boy who was 21, and I often asked if I could borrow his shore pass. That allowed me to drink all the beer I wanted,” he said, with his wide Swiss grin.
“When we returned to the homeland, my father asked to see me, and we met for lunch one day and he offered me 100 Swiss franks.
“I said, ‘This is a lot of money. What is this for?’ And he said it’s just something I want you to have.
“And I said thank you, but I do not need the money as I now have money of my own. I think he was trying to buy my forgiveness.
“Two weeks later, the shipmaster came to me and asked how old my father was, and I said he was forty. He said, ‘I’m sorry, your father is no longer living. He died.’
“He had killed himself, and I think we was very sorry for the way he had lived. All of my family was crying and I could only feel empty and there was no crying or sadness,” he said.
Sam spent the next 20 years serving as a volunteer in the Swiss military and traveling the world on sea-going cargo ships.
“We would make six-month voyages to China around the horn of Africa during the years the Suez Canal was closed,” he said. There was Portugal, Angola, Malaysia, Philippines, Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuala, Togo, India. The list of countries is almost endless.
In 1975 he was paid a weekly salary “just to be present” on a yacht owned by one of the wealthiest men in Switzerland.
In 2009, Sam retired from the cargo and shipping industry, and he’s now making a home in Ecuador, preparing a new home for his wife who will soon join him when their daughter completes school in Switzerland.
Sam spends 10 hours every day working in his enormous yard and overseeing a private construction crew that’s building his home on an acre of property overlooking the sea.
“I work when I like, and I stop working when I like,” he said. “The retirement is a good life.
“So many people are fearful of the travel, but for me it was the way I learned everything. I was traveling the world alone when I was 18, and I think it is a good way for people to learn and not be fearful.”
How does a fair-skinned, blue-eyed gringo at his first Nawi Fest become the most popular guy on the Malecon?
Nawi Fest comes to Pto. Cayo, Ecuador once a year. What is Nawi Fest? Well, it’s the opening of a bar – and not a particularly extraordinary bar. It’s bamboo construction just like all the others on the beach, but for some reason when Nawi Bar opens each January, time stands still in Ecuador.
Nawi Bar opens around the third weekend of January each year, and remains open for six weeks, not necessarily every day, or even Monday through Friday, but it’s open sometimes, all the time, during that six weeks, and yes, it’s a big deal.
More precisely, this is what Nawi Bar is:
Beer, sun, beer, food, beer, dancing, beer, hard liquor, beer and more beer.
In my 47 years I’ve been to a Jimmy Buffet concert on the beach, Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium. I’ve even toured a Coors distillery in Denver and Anheiser-Busch in St. Louis, and I’ve never seen the quantity of beer that Nawi brings to Pto. Cayo on opening day.
A few photos from our first Nawi Fest…