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.
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.
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.