Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Frank and Shel Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel Drake is a professional travel photographer.
The next morning, Wednesday, the International Living conference commenced. After being one of perhaps 80 people at the conference I’d attended in Belize and 125 in Panama City, I was stunned by the number of attendees, upwards of 400 potential expat ecuatorianos crowded into the big ballroom on the second floor of the Swissotel.
I looked around, zeroing in on offshore hopefuls of all sizes and stripes. The vast majority were around our age, mid-50s to mid-60s, gray-haired, a little stooped, but prosperous and eager. Some seemed just like Shel and I: fit, gritty, and fed up with the States. Others, however, I simply couldn’t imagine pronouncing Avenida Doce de Octubre, let alone crossing the freakin’ street, catching an express bus, wearing a daypack backwards, and relocating 5,000 miles to become strangers in a strange land.
But who was I to judge? Later, I sought out the creakiest granny in the group, whose husband got around with a four-wheeled rollator, and she told me that they’d moved to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico a few years earlier and were looking for a new adventure. So much for stereotypes.
The rest of that day and the next, we heard from a protracted parade of experts and expats. They spoke about living the high life overseas, lecturing us on how to: reclaim our retirement by looking south of the border; achieve a balance among time, place, and money; protect our wealth employing offshore strategies; profit from international real estate; turn life skills into new post-retirement careers; get quality healthcare; stay connected with friends, family, banks, and brokers — in general, leave the rat race behind.
We heard about real-estate title insurance, the latest gadgets from Skype and Netzphone, evacuation insurance, shipping household goods, complying with U.S. tax law, investing in tequila, cheap-thrill developer weekends, private banking, appraising foreign rental opportunities, learning a language at an advanced age, and so forth.
Some of it was self-promotional and predictable, especially the offshore investment advisers and service providers. But much of it was diverting and exotic and dreamy, and I spent most of my time in the audience in an exhilarating expatriation reverie.
Thursday night, we went to eat at Uncle Ho’s, a fusion Asian-Ecuadorian bar and grill a block from Casa Sol, right on Avenida Jose Calama in New Town. It’s owned by Kevin Sheehy, a young Irishman with pierced eyebrows, nostrils, and lips, piercing eyes, and an accent that sounds more Australian or South African than Hibernian. Friendliest chap you’d ever want to meet, born to be a barkeep.
I was waxing eloquent over Ecuador, glowing with the avidity of an apostle, and I said, “I think this is the start of a long love affair.”
Kevin, knowing we’d been in the country a mere three days, answered, “Well, don’t marry her yet.”
Shel laughed out loud and I knew I hadn’t heard the last of that line. Of course, it was good advice and I kept it in the back of my mind for the rest of our initial adventure in Ecuador. At the same time, you can’t help how you feel. Shel knew it too. She recognized it in me and, though constitutionally more skeptical than I am, she felt a little of it herself. She’d seen me feel this way before, you see, when I first met her. And here it was again, only this time, rather than a person, it was over a place.
MORE EXPLORING — AND A LAST LESSON IN TOILET PAPER
On Friday’s conference schedule were speakers extolling Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Brazil, Uruguay, Italy, France, and Thailand as retirement destinations. Of course, the morning after declaring my ardency for and allegiance to Ecuador, it almost felt like cheating to consider the virtues of other potential paramours. So we blew it off to run a couple errands and go exploring.
First, we stopped off at the Budget office and reserved a car for Sunday. The clerk spoke good English (he learned in school and by practicing with his father, who’d lived in New York for a few years) and that was that; on Sunday we’d be driving around Ecuador.
Then we went to the TAME office to book our flight to Cuenca the following Wednesday. The ticket agent asked for our passports and Shel handed over hers, but I hadn’t brought mine. In fact, I had no ID, except for a flimsy paper copy of my Nevada driver’s license Shel had prepared at home to make my throwaway wallet look at least a little realistic in case of getting accosted by an armed robber. For some reason, she’d decided to scratch out my driver’s license number, but when I offered it to the agent, she said, “That’s OK. I’ll just use these other numbers,” referring to a string of DMV code. Once more we marveled at the looseness of the ecuatoriano bureaucracy; in the U.S., I’d have probably been arrested for one thing or another. At the very least, I would’ve been told to return with my passport and sent packing. (This incident, however, came back to haunt us at Mariscal Sucre the following Wednesday.)
Then we took a long walk in a morning drizzle through a working-class and college neighborhood on the other side of the hill from the hotel district, Shel taking photographs of fabulous murals on the exterior walls of the university and workers crowded into the bed of a pickup truck. We wound up at a Friday-morning farmers market, our first in Ecuador. We bought some strawberries from a vendor, then I asked her, in my limited Spanish, if we could take her picture. She looked so shocked, initially, that I wondered what I’d said, and while Shel snapped her picture, I looked it up in my dictionary; it turned out that I’d asked if we could touch (tocar), rather than take (tomar), her fotographia. I didn’t make that mistake again.
We rounded the corner and there, surprisingly, was the Swissotel and I couldn’t help thinking about the 400 people sitting in the ballroom, while a real local-color affair was taking place right outside the back door.
From the front door we caught a taxi, our first Ecuadorian cab ride, and went downtown to the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Construction on this impressive iglesia (church) began in 1892 and was never completed. You pay $2 per person to take an elevator to the upper-most level, where you cross a rickety plank bridge with rope rails over the unfinished church ceiling, then climb a steep ladder to the top of the clock tower. From there, you ascend two more equally steep staircases to the belfry 25 stories off the ground.
The views of Quito, as you might imagine, are breathtaking, but I couldn’t get over the fact that one of the main tourist attractions in Ecuador’s capital city is a
personal-injury-lawyer’s wet dream. A creaky catwalk over a crumbling 120-year-old ceiling? Slack ropes standing between you and going splat on the pavement? Thirty-foot fire ladders to the top of a jerry-built bell tower? In the U.S., a single kid’s stubbed toe would shut the whole thing down in a New York minute, but in Quito, you climb at your own risk. Fall and it’s one less klutz passing along genetics for clumsiness. And don’t expect your relatives to look around for someone to sue.
Descending, I experienced my first and only symptoms of high-altitude discomfort: cramping and shaking in my legs due to lack of oxygen. I drank a bottle of water and rested and felt better. But now I had to take a wicked leak and it wasn’t until we walked the six blocks from the Basilica to Plaza Grande that we found a public porta-potty.
Here, I got my ultimate lesson in the Ecuadorian etiquette of toilet paper. Outside, I noticed an indigenous grandmother and her two adorable grandchildren selling lengths of TP for a dime. They were folded over neatly going in, and they were folded over neatly coming out, so to speak, after being used and tossed into the trash can. Thus, I got the idea of how to fold, wipe, fold, and discard.
As I practiced over the next few days, I not only got good at it, completely overcoming any residual squeamishness, but I came to realize the effectiveness, if not the elegance, of it. Since it goes in the trash instead of the toilet, you can use as much paper as you want, which takes about ten minutes to disintegrate and can’t clog up the plumbing, sewers, or septic tanks. And a little bit o’ shit on paper in landfills won’t, probably, ever hurt anyone. And if it does, well, c’est la vie.
The sun emerged from behind the cumuli, so we sat in Grand Plaza and watched Ecuador go by for a while, then walked down to La Marin, put our quarters into the turnstyle, caught the express bus out Avenida Seis de Diciembre, and made it home.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
On Thursday at the conference, we’d heard a talk by an Ecuadorian abogado (lawyer) on residency visas, the pensionado (retiree) program, and citizenship. He claimed — at least I thought he did — that one can qualify for an unlimited immigrant visa by showing income of as little as $800 a month, plus $100 for each dependent (along with the usual documentation). The investor visa is just as simple: proof of purchase of property of at least $25,000, plus $500 for each dependent, or a $25,000 deposit in a one-year certificate of deposit. What’s more, one can apply for citizenship after living in Ecuador for three years.
So on Saturday, the final day of the IL conference, I tracked down the abogado and asked him about citizenship. He simply reiterated the policy. In Ecuador, all you have to do is put $25,000 into a bank CD or buy a piece of property for $25,000 or more (plus $2,500 in legal and government fees) and you can apply for a residency visa, which basically gives you a permanent pass.
You’re supposed to fulfill a requirement of nine months residency the first year, but he said, “They don’t enforce it. They might someday and we track the policy for our clients. But so far, eight months, seven months, six months — no one pays too close attention. After around a thousand days in Ecuador, you can apply for citizenship. And it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to accrue the thousand. Three years, four years, five years, all they do is look at your passport and add up the days. When you become a citizen, you can apply for a passport.”
That clinched it for me. Dual citizenship and a second passport have always been at the top of my bucket list and this was the easiest, cheapest, and quickest combo toward that end I’d ever heard. I’d been in the country a mere five days and had experienced only the narrowest slice of la vida ecuatoriana, yet it was now official. I was in love. I opened my heart and Ecuador just flooded in.
Which is why the first thing I did when I got home was dive into researching the easiest, cheapest, and quickest way back.
Photo captions: Ceramic mural on exterior wall of the university; vendor at the mercado and her produce selection; view from the bell tower of the Basilica; plank walkway from the ladder; one of the ladders up to the bell tower; Presidential Palace on Independence Plaza; view from Casa Sol