Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dream On

About my life in Cuenca I’m often asked, “So what do you do all day?” I’ve come to understand that this is code for, “So what would I do all day?” I am now a few months into my second full year of retirement and would like to share some thoughts on the subject.

Retirement can be tricky. A lot of people work, work, work, saying they can’t wait to quit but having absolutely no idea what they’re going to do afterwards. So they continue to work, work, work because something, even if it’s spending most of your waking hours getting ready for, going to, doing, and returning from a job you find completely unstimulating, seems better than nothing.

But is it? Many of us fear the unknown, and it doesn’t get much scarier than staring into a void. Viewed from a different perspective, though, nothingness is a joyous place from which all creativity is born and all things are possible without restriction.

Remember when you were a kid? Anything you imagined could come true. Then you grew up, life happened to you, and perhaps you forgot how to dream. Or maybe you had dreams but they didn’t work out. Or did you just give up on them too quickly?

Retirement offers the opportunity to become childlike again, to see the world as new and exciting. Are you old enough to have memories of your mother telling you to “Go outside and play!”? That’s what Cynthia and I do many days. We have the slimmest notion of a plan or schedule and just “go out there.” People, events, and circumstances almost inevitably appear that add such richness and texture to our lives, but would most likely go unnoticed were we plowing ahead trying to maintain some frantic schedule.

I feel fortunate that I entered this period of life anxious to pursue interests both new and dormant. My degree is in journalism but my career went in a different direction entirely. Now at least I’m writing this blog and it gives me great satisfaction. Your support makes keeping it up all the more worthwhile.

I’m thankful to spend all the time I want on my health and fitness because as I’m getting older I find much more time is needed! It’s great to just sit and read for as long as I like. To only rarely be awakened by an alarm. To plan, shop for, prepare, and enjoy eating fun meals. And spending quality time with friends and really getting to know them is a special blessing.

I want to travel more. To paint and sculpt. To become fluent in Spanish. To improve my yoga practice. To learn to play the cello. Maybe even write a book.

So I suggest that the key to a successful retirement revolves around the answer to this question: are you running away from or towards something? A variation of the half empty/half full idea, one’s response sets both the tone and direction of the journey. If you’re hanging it up because you just don’t want to work anymore, then that’s the only motivation and it doesn’t much matter what’s next. Or so you think until you’re quickly bored to death (perhaps literally).

Maybe a quiet, simple existence is all you’ve ever wanted--great! But if so far your life has in fact “happened” with little or none of your conscious intention, and if there are some things you’d like to finally do, I encourage you to be that kid and dream again. Imagine the life you’d love to live. Then start living it. Today. Now.

Retirement can be our best or worst years. And each of us gets to choose. Even not choosing is a choice. It’s your life, after all, so make it count.

Have fun and be happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Weekend at Juan's

Juan's request caught me by surprise. Our good friend had invited us to spend the long holiday weekend (Quito Independence Day) with him at his inlaws' hacienda in the countryside. His own family was at the coast, so we jumped at the chance to enjoy some horseback riding and relaxation in beautiful surroundings.

He was calling to tell me that he and a friend wanted to ride their bikes out there and wondered if I would mind driving his truck and meeting them. Well, let's see. I've never driven in Ecuador--I can't remember when I've driven a stick shift truck--the hacienda is about 45 minutes away, much of it over winding, hilly, and incredibly bumpy dirt roads. Why not?!?

When he brought the truck by and drew me a map my enthusiasm wavered. Several of the roads had no names and were identified by "you'll see a small bridge going over a tiny creek" or "turn left at the sign that has writing on the side that you can't see." Still, we soldiered on, loading up with our luggage and provisions and, against all odds, arriving without a hitch.

These two knuckleheads were biking pretty much the same route we had just driven and we knew they were going to be exhausted and famished, so we immediately set to work preparing lunch. Good plan, because they arrived shortly thereafter--exhausted and famished.

We were under the impression that just the three of us would be staying there, but after eating a friend showed up to visit, then Juan's brother and his wife arrived to spend the weekend as well. Later in the evening a friend of his dropped by for dinner (the other two guys had departed). The next day Juan's mom & dad called to say they were coming to spend Saturday night with us, and they surprised us all by showing up with her sister. And Sunday the sister's daughter and her dog arrived unannounced to hang out for awhile. None of this was a problem--the damn house is so big it can sleep 25 or more. It was yet another interesting and entertaining view of Ecuadorian life.

Friday afternoon was warm and gorgeous, so we enjoyed being outside surrounded by beautiful vistas.

That night we enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal of filet mignon (lomo fino to the locals), then went on a full moon horseback ride. Very unique and memorable. Saturday Juan and two friends went on a full day ride deemed too advanced for the rest of us, so we lounged around and went on a hike through the gorgeous countryside.

Along the way we encountered various cows

and two young horses and their "nanny."

We weren't aware that the end of our journey involved a "Stairway to Hell."

Mom, Dad, and Aunt Louisa showed up, and later Cynthia & I enjoyed making "gringo food" for them-spaghetti with homemade marinara, salad, and garlic bread. They must have liked it because not a scrap remained.

Sunday we went on another ride--this one much more vigorous and in broad daylight.

For two hours on dirt roads--across pastures--up (steep) hills--down (steep) hills--walking, cantering, and galloping. What an experience!! We were exhilarated and exhausted at the same time.

Now we're back in Cuenca, sore beyond belief and ready to do it all again. What a great adventure!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Forecast: Partly Crappy with a Chance of Diarrhea

I hate a messy kitchen. So a few nights ago after enjoying a delicious dinner of chicken marsala, oven roasted potatoes, and asparagus, a meal that was fun to prepare but dirtied a lot of pots, pans, dishes, silver and glassware, it was particularly aggravating when the water went off for the second night in a row. And didn't come back on until after we were in bed and almost asleep. And I hate waking up to a messy kitchen even more-------.

But such has been our fate since returning from the States only two weeks ago. The lost bag--internet off--retrieving the lost bag--visa problems--water going off twice--it has seemed like we've been caught in a shit storm that won't disperse.

And day before yesterday threw another log on the fire. I needed to pull some cash from an ATM. The machine I normally use was out of order, so I went up the street to another one that I intensely dislike for reasons I'll soon reveal. I put in my card and requested $300. The screen puttered around then said "Transaction Incomplete." H-m-m-m----. I went inside and asked an employee what was going on. He said ATM's all over the city were down but should be operational in just a few minutes. He asked me to wait, then accompanied me to the machine for another try. Same message, no money, no receipt. Oh, well-------.

But you know how sometimes you just have a feeling? I went home and checked my balance online. As I suspected---two $300 deductions, no money. And I always thought that people robbed banks, not vice versa. Silly me.

The reason for my negativity towards this particular machine is that I had already been a robbery victim there a few months ago. Again withdrawing money, some of the bills (worth $60) got stuck in the hole and when after the allotted time I could not for the life of me get a proper grip on them the SOB sucked them in like a spoonful of jello. I reported the incident immediately and the employee, in true Latin American fashion, said it wasn't the bank's fault because they didn't own the machine. He suggested a convoluted solution that was along the lines of solving a Rubik's cube. Plus this account was with one of the US behemoths. I decided I was going to spend $600 (or maybe $6000) worth of effort trying to be reimbursed the 60 bucks, so in the end I succumbed and didn't pursue it.

Now we were talking about $600, but this time good fortune was on my side of the pigskin. You probably thought this blog was going to be another chapter in Poor Edd's Almanac. Nope, this time I get to live happily ever after.

You see, I don't use that giant bank anymore. Nope, after that previous incident I decided to run our financial transactions through a small credit union in South Carolina where we've had a relationship for years. This is the kind of institution where when I call on Skype I can say, "Hey. This is Edd Staton. Can I speak to-----?"

And that's exactly what I did. After talking to my friend there and following up with an email to make everything official, the money was back in my account the next day. No labyrinth of "For _______ press ___," no "I need to transfer you to ____," no unanswered voicemail, no "We need you to fill out this form, provide a stool specimen, and ______." Not even, "What's your account number, sir?" They know my account number because they know me.

This incident made me think about why I ever decided to use that big bank in the first place. Then I remembered that when we first moved here they charged no "foreign transaction fee" to withdraw money. Their policy subsequently changed and a small fee was applied but my behavior didn't until the cash-gobbling event caused me to reevaluate.

Only then did I realize, "OK, this place has begun charging me money to have my own money, which sucks, and now I don't even want to call them about losing money because I know it will be a waste of time. Why in the hell am I using these guys?" Only then did I finally do some research, make some phone calls, and end up in a much simpler, better place.

Moral of this little story? Have the diligence to constantly examine the components of your life big and small and ask yourself, "Is this serving me?"

If so, continue full speed ahead. If not, change. Now.

I'm happy to report the "storm clouds" appear to have moved on for now. We've enjoyed a particularly social weekend, even by Staton standards: attending a dinner party Friday night and visits with two different couple friends exploring Cuenca, interestingly, from two different parts of North Carolina on Saturday and today. Hoping for a quiet, event-less week ahead (with the knowledge in all probability that ain't gonna happen).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Tale of Two MORE Cities

Regular readers of this blog will recall that in my last post I had gone back and forth to Trenton, NJ twice to successfully fetch documents necessary for processing my retirement visa. And there were rumblings that I might need an apostiled police report as part of the package.

First the brief good news. That additional document wasn't required after all. However, when we visited our attorney and proudly displayed all the documents we had gathered we were told that, sadly, there was not enough time to apply for the new visa before the old one expired. The recommended solution was to go back to the United States, from which we had just returned, and obtain a new 12-IX tourist visa that would allow us to remain in Ecuador while the new one was being completed.

We were stunned--shocked--dumbfounded. Go back to the US? A quick check of Kayak told us last-minute tickets, even to nearby Miami, were over $1500 each. Plus food, transportation and accommodations? Impossible. There HAD to be another way.

Seeking another opinion we reached out to our friend Juan Heredia, who suggested his attorney might be able to come up with a better solution. I contacted her immediately and went straight to her office. At this point there were only three days until our visa expired, so time, as they say, was of the essence.

After reviewing our situation she thought that our best bet was to take a bus to neighboring Peru, spend the night, so that in coming back across the border into Ecuador our 12-IX visas would automatically commence. Other friends had successfully utilized this strategy in the past, and while we weren't keen to take a l-o-n-g bus trip to Peru and back that wasn't to have fun, it sure beat the original idea by a long shot.

First, however, she wanted to send our information to and consult with another attorney associate in Quito where all visas are now processed. This person, who we learned has vast experience in immigration law, assured her that if we flew to Quito she could not only fix our problem immediately, she would also apply for our retirement visa while we were there.

Wow, what a turnaround! In 24 hours we had gone from spending a fortune to hightail it back to the States to going to Peru on a bus to simply getting on a plane and flying 30 minutes to Quito. Perhaps anything is possible in Ecuador!

But first a trip to the local police office was necessary to obtain a document about our travels in and out of Ecuador during the preceding year of our existing visa. When the attorney and I got there a little before noon (the office closes from 12:30 to 3) there were a bunch of people sitting in chairs arranged in a big U around the room. I didn't see a place to take a number and asked how everybody knew whose turn it was.

"Just watch," she said. Sure enough, when the person being helped got up to leave, the last folks at the end of the U rose for their turn and everybody else dutifully got up all around the room and moved down two seats to fill the gap, leaving us to take our place on the other end.

We inched around the room, getting up and sitting down over and over until a little before 12:30 an officer passed out numbers to those of us who would have to come back, assuring our place in line when they reopened at 3. Why had it not occurred to anyone to have a similar procedure when you first arrived to eliminate the Musical Chairs we had been playing? Remember, best not to ask "why" here; you just do it.

Returning at 3 we were promptly helped but told to go get copies of some of the documents. I could have sworn my new attorney friend said something about a car but was certain I had misunderstood. No, we actually went outside to a car where, I swear, a woman was sitting in the back seat with a copy machine. We handed her the papers through the window, she copied them, I paid her 75 cents, we went back inside and handed them to the police officer and were on our way. The fact that the Musical Chairs and the back seat copy store shenanigans seemed somehow normal were clear indications that I am successfully assimilating into this culture.

All this happened on Monday. Early Tuesday morning we got up, went to the airport, and bought two one-way tickets on the first flight to Quito. Surprise, US readers--walk-up tickets within the country are the same price as ones purchased in advance. In this case about $60 each.

Arriving at the attorney's office there, she looked over all our documents and declared everything was in order. "Tomorrow we can get it all done," she declared. What? Tomorrow? We thought this was going to be a come and go the same day trip and brought absolutely nothing but the clothes on our back. Yikes! Well, it is what it is.

We found an inexpensive hotel nearby, then went to a drugstore and bought some emergency supplies. After signing some papers, going back to the office and signing more papers, we ate, collapsed in our room and awaited D-day. Everything was on the line; tomorrow was our last legal day in Ecuador.

After waiting four hours at the Immigration Office our number was finally called (they actually use a number system there). We all sat down with the official, he carefully looked over our paperwork, and then a miracle happened. We were approved!!

Through our experience we had uncovered a dirty little secret never revealed by Cuenca attorneys (And who can blame them? They don't want to lose business.). It appears the thirty-day-in-advance rule is only for visa applications submitted remotely. If you show up at the Immigration Office with proper representation and your ducks in a row your approval is immediate.

Moral of the story: use a tag team of qualified attorneys in both cities. Since visas are no longer processed in Cuenca it makes no sense to rely solely on a local attorney unless you're prepared to endure the stress of waiting forever for your approval. Anyone interested in a referral please email me at

Cynthia and I celebrated our victory with a delicious meal at a Chinese restaurant (a definite advantage of being in a big city--only scary hole-in-the-wall Chinese joints exist in Cuenca), went back to the airport, bought tickets and flew home elated at our good fortune. We discovered the water was off in our building when we got home and all we could do was laugh. After what we'd just been through this was nothing. Guess what--it came back on within the hour. Another ripple in the stream.

This concludes the latest chapter in our never-ending saga of going with the flow while living in a foreign land. Was all this stressful? You betcha. Last night I turned off my bedroom light at 9:47 and was dead asleep at---9:47. But did we get angry or upset about what could have been a dire situation? Such thoughts and feelings would have contributed nothing to a positive outcome. Without labeling our circumstance as "good" or "bad" we simply acted on what presented itself.

Today the sun is shining and the crisis has passed. Life is good. And the ATM system in the city seems to have crashed. Ah, Ecuador---------.