Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An Evening to Remember

Ah, an elegant dinner party. The flowers, candles, and music. A beautifully set table. Wonderful food, drink, and camaraderie. What’s not to love?

Well, if you’re the host, there’s those annoying little details like planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving. And worst of all, facing that mountain of dirty pots, pans, dishes, glasses, and silverware after the happy and satisfied guests have departed.

Cynthia and I chose a different option this holiday season, hiring Grits Catering to prepare the food for our party of six. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Martin’s meals and hoped a catered dinner would allow us to better relax and enjoy the evening with our friends.

We assumed our order would be brought here in the same fashion as her lunches and dinners (although we wondered how the delivery guy was going to transport five courses for that many people on his motorcycle), and that we’d unpack and transfer each course to the proper serving dish.

So we were surprised when Jennifer called us to schedule the time when she would arrive. “You’re coming??” I asked. “Of course,” she replied. “I’ll be cooking the entree in your kitchen.” Cool!

Cynthia takes great pleasure in setting a lovely table and I think you’ll agree she does a fab job. Then all we had to do was wait for everyone to show up.

Jennifer got here with the food and her assistant Jennie (another surprise!) shortly before our guests arrived. When all were present I served libations and in no time a yummy appetizer platter of baked brie topped with caramelized onions and a jalapeƱo sauce was brought out.

Me serving that initial round and Cynthia refreshing wine and water glasses the rest of the evening turned out to be the total extent of our involvement. Shortly afterwards we were summoned to the dining room table for creamy cauliflower soup garnished with fried shallots,

followed by mixed greens tossed with Champagne-poached pears, candied walnuts, goat cheese and a honey-Dijon vinaigrette.

It was like our home had been transformed into a restaurant! While Jennie served each course Jennifer explained what we were about to eat. When we were done the dishes and silverware were quietly cleared. Our entree was Beef Wellington encased in flaky puff pastry served with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, roasted tomato and mashed potato puffs with ricotta cheese. Does this look delicious? It was!

After all the scrumptious food no one was ready for dessert--dark chocolate cake with red wine glaze--so Jennifer plated our final course for later and got ready to leave. When we went to say goodbye we got the biggest surprise of all--they had washed, dried, and put away every single thing. Our kitchen was spotless. WHAT?!?!?

For those of you who have hosted a party like this on your own, you know it’s fun but also stressful and exhausting. Or maybe you’ve never taken the leap because the whole thing just seems too daunting.

Trust me, this is the way to go. We all had a great time and wonderful meal, plus Cynthia and I got to visit with our guests the entire evening without distraction. Once everyone had departed we sat with a nightcap marveling that the occasion had been so enjoyable and effortless.

And considering that all the time-consuming and energy-draining aspects associated with hosting such an event were totally eliminated, we concluded having such an upscale dining experience in the comfort of our own home was actually a tremendous value.

Thank you, Jennifer Martin and Grits Catering, for a memorable event. We highly recommend you to everyone in Cuenca!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Time Travelers

Cynthia and I pretty much take our daily lives for granted. You most likely do the same. I mean, it's your life and you live it all day every day. You've been doing it for years. What's to think about, right?

So we tend to forget that to you our lives are kind of unusual. For starters we reside in a foreign country that most people know little about. To some of you this blog may constitute your entire knowledge of Ecuador.

Then there's the fact that we leave for weeks, even months, at a time. Whereas your trips are probably long weekends--a week--two weeks tops. We just returned home Monday night after almost six weeks in the States and it dawned on me that you might be curious to know what it's like to be gone for extended periods of time.

I'm often asked, "Don't you worry about your place while you're away?" The answer is we don't even think about this apartment when we're not here. Why? Two reasons: 1) we live in a secure building and 2) we continue to pay our maid while we're gone so she can come by every week to check on the place plus do extra cleaning projects. In fact, we rarely think of Cuenca at all.

This latest trip started in Las Vegas where we had dinner with my sister and her hubby, and celebrated our anniversary (it was in July but after this many years----) with an exciting helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. On to Phoenix for a conference, then to New Jersey for trick-or-treating with one set of grandchildren, a day trip into Manhattan, down to North Carolina to visit our son and the other two young’uns, then back to New Jersey for a family Thanksgiving feast and Christmas decorating, and now here we are at home.

That sounds like a lot. It is a lot. And in the midst of all this bee bopping around a funny thing happens with our perception of time. When looking back on all that activity time feels like it slows down. As in, "We were in Vegas six weeks ago? It seems like six months ago!"

I still remember my grandmother telling me about how time flies when you're older. Approaching middle age I was actually concerned about her dire warnings. For us the opposite has been true, and I'm convinced it's because we stay so busy doing fun and interesting things. Bless her heart, towards the end my grandmother's life the only events marking her mental calendar were annual holidays and birthdays. So each year for her was less than 30 days long. No wonder they seemed to be zipping by!

In addition to the stimulation of the travel experience itself, spending time with our young grandchildren contributes to this time slowdown because they change so much between visits. One of our granddaughters lost her first two teeth while we were there and another one celebrated her third birthday.

But things get almost surreal in the opposite way when we return home. Because once we've unpacked and bought groceries it feels like we never left. Like the whole multi-week trip we just completed was a dream. Think about it. Our place is exactly like we left it. There are even clean sheets on the bed! Nothing has radically changed in the neighborhood. We may not talk to our friends for weeks at a time anyway so while we're gone they keep living their lives with or without us. It's very much like we simply turn our lives on and off here.

In spite of all these metaphysical time musings I must admit that Cynthia and I haven't thus far found a way to halt the aging process, so more and more we pay a price for all our frenetic travel adventures. While we wouldn't have it any other way, giving our all to being hands-on grandparents to little kids for weeks and weeks is exhausting. Combining that with hours on airplanes and getting readjusted to Cuenca's high altitude, we're pretty beat down at first.

Lugging lots of max weight suitcases up four flights of steps, as we did Monday night, isn't the ideal "Welcome Home!!" activity. The remainder of that evening consisted of some unpacking, a few cocktails, and peanut butter crackers for dinner. Since then we've been sleeping more than normal, getting the pantry and refrigerator restocked, and easing back into our routine.

Having said that, reconnecting with friends is a high priority so we already have five social activities on the calendar in the next 10 days. Just as we walk around our apartment plugging in lamps when we return, it doesn't take much time at all to plug back into our lives here in Cuenca!!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Special Delivery

Mug cakes aren't the only food category where Cynthia and I arrived late to the party. A much more basic topic hiding in plain view has until recently eluded us for years.

Our daughter's home in New Jersey is in that raising small children mode with which we're all familiar. There never seems to be enough time and everyone's always tired. So when we're there visiting the drawer with menus from local eateries is often opened, a phone call is made, and shortly thereafter the doorbell's ring announces that dinner has arrived via delivery.

We came to Cuenca in 2010 before the appearance of this home delivery idea. And truthfully the food scene was so abysmal then there wasn't anything you would have wanted to order anyway. Fast forward to today when a remarkable explosion of culinary choice has blossomed.

We've seen the motorcycles with boxes on the back for making deliveries. We've even been in restaurants and seen boxes of pizzas going out the door. But somehow those observations never translated into our participation. I often say there's a fine line between being in a groove and being in a rut. Perhaps, as with the story awhile back about the gas guy, we had fallen into the latter category.

About six months ago, after 6 1/2 years, we finally took the plunge and ordered a to-go pizza and Caesar salad from one of our favorite Italian eateries. As expected the delivery guy couldn't find our building (the number is out of synch and no one seems to be able to find it the first time) and I had to walk down four flights of steps to complete the transaction. But the food was wonderful and we're sitting at our table asking, "Exactly why have we not done this before? The delivery fee is about the same as the tip we would leave and we didn't have to go to and from the restaurant, wait for the order, wait for the bill, wait for the change--this needs to happen more often!!"

And indeed it has. In addition to the pizza place, a new gringa-run food delivery business called Grits Catering has quickly become an integral part of our weekly meal planning. Owner Jennifer Martin is cranking out some damned tasty food and we've been elated to wash a couple of plates, knives, and forks after a delicious meal instead of facing those plus a kitchen of dirty cutting boards, utensils, pots, and pans to clean up.

We've enjoyed shrimp and grits (What??), gourmet meatloaf and au gratin potatoes, barbeque chicken salad, shrimp po' boys. I'm in fact writing this blog right now while we're waiting for delivery of short ribs and mushroom risotto, and I can't wait to dig in!

Between inexpensive local almuerzos and meal delivery our grocery bill and kitchen cleanup time have both been slashed. OK, we're late to the party but the Staton's say:

Party on!!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Microwave Miracles

Have you ever heard of a mug cake? If so, why the hell haven't you told me about it? We were having dinner at a couple's home last week when the hostess said something about an easy dessert.

"What did you say?" I asked. "A mud cake?"

"No," she replied. "A mug cake."

"What does that even mean?"

"You put the ingredients in a mug, stick it in the microwave for like a minute, and you've got a small cake."

"Shut the _____ up."

I came home a little dubious, but curious enough to Google it. Sure enough, almost 8 million results appeared. Wow.

We enjoy delicious baked goods but rarely make them for a number of reasons. One, our oven sucks. It's the only one that would fit in the opening in our kitchen when we moved in and the temperature, which refuses to exceed 400 degrees, is reliably unreliable.

Second, baking at high altitude is notoriously tricky. And most importantly, what are two people going to do with a whole pie or cake? (Cookies, most likely because of their smaller individual size, avoid that question and magically disappear.)

So this mug cake idea eliminated a lot of problems and potentially opened up a whole new world of possibilities. But how could a cake that cooks in one minute be any good?

Only one way to find out. I saw a recipe for a molten chocolate cake and knowing that we have all the ingredients looked no further. But I was a bit flummoxed when it said to put everything in a 2 cup capacity mug. They make coffee cups that big?? Who knew?

I used an appropriately sized bowl and saw that this dessert was for sure going to be a "splitter." I thought if people are routinely eating this much cake all by themselves I instantly understand the U.S. obesity problem much more clearly.

Less than 5 minutes after I started--VOILA--this bad boy emerged from the microwave.

And when I dished it up---oh, my goodness!

Moist and delicious, my friends, this is nothing short of a miracle. I quickly went back to the computer and on deck for the coming week are a blueberry muffin with strudel topping and a yummy-sounding carrot cake.

Somebody stop me!!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Goldilocks People

Happy Fall, y'all. With the official changing of the season many of you are probably looking forward to putting away the shorts and tee shirts in favor of jackets and sweaters. The leaves will be turning soon and it will be great to say bye-bye to summer heat and be outside enjoying that crisp autumn air.

Here in Cuenca we're looking forward to---tomorrow. Which will be about the same as today. In the "Land of Eternal Spring" weather fluctuations are pretty much confined to minor changes in temperature and whether or not it's going to rain.

We're now emerging from our "winter" season which in truth lasted maybe two weeks. Fourteen days of constantly chilly, overcast weather felt pretty miserable as temps inside our apartment ranged from the mid-60's to the high 50's. Again, that's inside our home!

It's Groundhog Day every time I open my closet. Twelve months a year I pick from the same clothes, which are mainly long sleeved shirts and jeans. I have more pairs of jeans than I do slacks--never saw that one coming. I honestly get tired of wearing them so much and welcome every opportunity to "dress up" when we visit friends or go out to eat. Packing for our recent beach trip took like five minutes since I have so few warm weather choices. My one heavy coat hangs in one of our daughter's closets in New Jersey because I never need it here.

Cynthia and I replace a few clothing items each time we go to the States. When we're in Phoenix next month a trip to a premium outlet mall is already planned. Usually the discarded clothes (Staton rule: get rid of at least as many as you add) we give to our maid aren't worn out--we're just sick of looking at them!

While staring at the exact same wardrobe every morning admittedly gets a bit monotonous, I'm not complaining. Because of our daughter's health crisis last year Cynthia and I were in the U.S. for much of the summer and enough of the winter to confirm our disdain for temperature extremes. Cuenca's mild climate was an important reason we moved here, and over the past 7+ years we've become total Goldilocks people--not too hot, not too cold--just right!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Get Out of Town!

What do you do when you've basically been in exile for two months with a messed up face and blot clot issues? Well, if you're the Staton's you get the heck out of town and head to the beach!

I found what appeared to be a great Airbnb rental right on the Pacific, invited one of our favorite couples to come along, and off we all went.

The good news--the place where we were staying was just right--private and oceanfront. Here are a few pics.

Covered seating area right outside.

Big hot tub with the ocean just beyond our seawall (couldn't resist the overdone foot pic).

Grill for fresh fish, shrimp, and lobster.

And the ugliest dog I think I've ever seen.

When I said private, I meant it.

The bad news--one of our motivations was to enjoy sunshine that has been sorely lacking here. Over the course of five days we experienced a total of about thirty minutes of patchy blue sky. Sigh-----.

We went to a local fish market to get that grill fired up. Hello, dinner. These guys cost $3 apiece.

Fun in the sun wasn't happening but that didn't dampen our spirits. One day we jumped in the car and headed up the coast to Playa Los Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador. Located within Machalilla National Park, it's very secluded (the number of visitors is limited so there's never a crowd) and has a lovely horseshoe shape.

Another day our friends took us to a wacky hotel/restaurant/museum called Hosteria Farallon Dillon. The owner and his wife have created a very unique property perched high on a cliff overlooking the ocean. We had a beer, then toured the museum filled with artifacts collected from a Spanish shipwreck he discovered and lots of other treasures from his worldwide travels.

We otherwise spent our days walking the beach, playing cards, and enjoying cocktails. Not many shells to be found but lots of amazingly colored rocks.

Every evening involved seafood, wine, and extended visits to the hot tub. After that and the hypnotic sound of crashing waves we slept the best in a l-o-n-g time. Now we're back in Cuenca with improved health and renewed energy. Even without sunshine, getting away was exactly what we both needed.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

In the News!

Cynthia and I are honored to be featured in this article today by author and financial planner Ben Carlson:

An Alternative Solution to the Retirement Crisis

Posted September 2, 2017 by Ben Carlson

After writing about some of the reasons for the potential retirement crisis a few weeks ago I gave the standard prescription for the solution for most retirees — a combination of working longer, living on less, and reducing expectations for their retirement dreams.

Then I received an email from two of my retired readers, Edd and Cynthia, who took a different approach — they retired abroad. Like many others, they had a difficult time following the financial crisis with both work and their finances so they got creative with their retirement solution and moved to Ecuador where the cost of living is much lower.

People are constantly trying to emulate world class investors but I think most would be better served looking up to normal people who have been able to find a happy, successful retirement.

What follows is Edd and Cynthia’s story as well as a short Q&A we had through email about their experience. Retiring abroad won’t be for everyone but this is a cool story about normal people getting creative to solve a financial problem and retire on their own terms.

Here’s Edd and Cynthia:


As 2008 began we were on a roll. Edd had recently been honored as “National Salesperson of the Year” by his company and Cynthia was selling a high-end condo development on the shores of Lake Las Vegas. We earned great incomes and lived in a beautiful home. Our investment strategy looked solid and the enjoyable retirement we had envisioned for so long was only a few years away.

Six months later our world turned upside down as we were engulfed by “The Economic Tsunami of 2008.” Both jobs vanished and the value of our investments was shrinking by the day. We desperately sought new employment but the job market had also disappeared, especially for middle-aged sales professionals seeking high compensation.

As the months dragged by and our financial situation became more desperate we realized that the conventional wisdom we had always followed–hanging in there, staying the course–was no longer serving us. A radical solution was needed. Now.

We decided that preserving our remaining assets, retiring early and relocating somewhere overseas with a lower cost of living was our best bet. But to make such an extreme move a reduced budget wasn’t enough. Our wish list also included a temperate climate, excellent health care, proximity to our family in the U.S., plus cultural amenities and modern conveniences.

Internet research turned up a location that seemed to check all our boxes. It was a small city we’d never heard of in a country we knew next to nothing about–Cuenca, Ecuador.

We scheduled an investigative trip in July of 2009, loved everything we experienced, and immediately made plans to move to Cuenca the following May. Preparations were going smoothly until January when we were rocked with another setback–Cynthia was diagnosed with breast cancer.

By now we were fully committed to this relocation and there was no turning back. Surgery was immediately performed followed by radiation therapy specifically designed to support our schedule. Shortly after her final treatment we were on the plane to Ecuador.

Flash forward seven years later. Cynthia’s cancer-free and against overwhelming odds we’ve never been happier. We live in a beautiful 3000 square foot two-story penthouse apartment with 270 degree views of the surrounding Andes mountains. The weather is spring-like year round, and we’re only hours away from our kids and grandkids.

Our budget includes a housekeeper, dining out 4-5 times a week, gym and yoga studio memberships, fresh flowers, mani/pedi’s, plus national health insurance (100% coverage with $0 deductibles).

And how much is that budget? Less than $2000/month.

For folks in their 50’s and 60’s who, like us, suffered a major financial setback, or who for whatever reason just haven’t saved enough, the standard advice to work longer, save more, and after doing all that accept a meager retirement is, well, not acceptable. Moving abroad as we did provides the opportunity for a retirement lifestyle that can greatly exceed expectations with zero stress and 100% freedom.

PS. As a finance guy you’ll be interested to know part of our capital is invested in one year, government-insured CD’s that earn 10% interest.

What are some of the biggest drawbacks of retiring outside of the country?

1)The psychological distress of being apart from family and friends, especially if grandchildren are part of the picture. This can be alleviated by an adequate travel budget for regular trips back home. 2) Adapting to a different language and culture. Some new expats have the mistaken expectation that moving abroad is simply a cheaper version of life in the U.S.

How difficult was the transition from a paperwork perspective?

Shifting everything online involving paperwork in your home country makes life abroad much easier. Banks, credit card and investment companies, and other ongoing bills you may have will most likely offer this option. For the rare situation when you would need to receive mail, many expats maintain an address of record with a family member or use a service like US Global Mail. Since paperwork in foreign countries is often extensive and confusing, we highly recommend paying qualified attorneys for their professional guidance with legal transactions, including property purchases and visa matters. We have found legal fees abroad to be generally much less expensive than in the U.S.

What’s something most people wouldn’t consider when making this type of move?

Many people our age move abroad primarily to enjoy a better quality of life with a lower cost of living. The surprising discovery your new relaxed lifestyle reveals is how debilitating the stress level was that you unknowingly carried around for years. It really is a silent killer. So without sounding dramatic, for someone facing retirement who is financially under-prepared for whatever reason, this “type of move” where the cost of living is now affordable could add many stress-free years to one’s life. Since retiring to Ecuador this has certainly been true for us.

How long did the planning process take to make it happen?

Of course, there’s no standard answer here. Our life was fairly complicated, so it took us about a year to unravel everything and make the move. We discovered Cuenca online in May of 2009, traveled here for our investigative trip in July, and arrived as new residents May of the following year. Even though this seemed like plenty of time to prepare, some last-minute obstacles caused a bit of scrambling at the end.

Thinking about any other locations or are you happy where you are?

After 7+ years here the subject of “what’s next?” has recently been broached, but honestly at this point in time there’s no itch to scratch. All the attributes that initially drew us here are still in place, and Cuenca just keeps getting better and better.

What are the biggest financial hurdles to pulling this off?

Our biggest hurdle was summoning the courage to abandon the retirement plans we’d nurtured for years and head off on a radically new path. Once that decision was made there was no looking back. We arrived in Cuenca intending not just to “live” but to create a fulfilling life, and to make this new direction work at the highest possible level. And it has. We also had to overcome the hurdle of our own skepticism that a satisfactory retirement financed by Social Security income was doable. On our investigative trip we experienced firsthand a truth that our subsequent residence has confirmed–moving abroad offers an affordable lifestyle that exceeds expectations.