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Ship Log

Letter: How Did We Get Here?

Quito, Ecuador

September 2010

You weren’t the only one wondering what the hell we were up to when you got our earlier email announcing a new address in Ecuador.  Things moved fast; long-planned changes happened before we knew it. Here’s the story, and it starts with the refrain we carried away with us after living in Madrid in the late 70s: “If all else fails, we can always go back and teach English in Spain.” (As it turns out, it’s not that easy. With the European Union, it is next to impossible for non-EU types like us to get work there. Other options for residing in Spain include retiring/investing or running a business there. Maybe later.)

Since winding down The Rake magazine in 2008, Tom toyed with new options for work, projects, amusements, and hobbies – with the desire to relocate.  After many hands of online poker, he chose to take a CELTA course in Costa Rica in February this year – 4 weeks of intensive instruction to receive Cambridge University’s certification to teach English to adults. With that, you can go just about anywhere in the world and find work.

Meanwhile, I was getting tired of publishing the website (SecretsoftheCity.com) for measly money, and getting increasingly impatient with the busy-work of web publishing.  And of course the house was emptying out – Jane and Matt work and live elsewhere in Minneapolis – but the accumulation of stuff never went away.  If we were going to travel, we needed to disencumber ourselves.

In short, if ever there was a time we could take off and be freewheeling, this was it.  No dependents at home or at work. Still able to walk without assistance. Still curious, and still, we hoped, able to see, hear, learn, adapt, and sleep in unfamiliar surroundings.  For me, the timing was underscored when I lost my brother to pancreatic cancer in February, just 15 months after my sister passed away.

For Mother’s Day, Matt and Jane helped get things started by clearing their own stuff out of the house – completely.  (There are plenty of people my age who still have stuff stored at their parent’s house, so I figured this was a major accomplishment.)  We had a notion of putting the house on the market, and while we met with agents and started to prepare, Tom looked around for teaching positions.  He looked everywhere – from Malaysia, China, Thailand, and Japan, to Istanbul, Spain, and South America.  The first real job offer came from Ecuador – and that’s part of why we are here.  Plus, we speak Spanish and had never been to South America.  Ecuador appeared to be relatively healthy politically (a democracy, sort of, until Correa started bullying branches of the government around), not involved in any wars (with other countries, at the moment), avoiding the worst of the drug trade and its gnarly effects, and on a development path (bumpy and circuitous as it is). Ecuador is known for the health and longevity of its people, and of course the Andean and Incan history is an attraction for us. Quito is only a 5-hour flight from Houston and in the same time zone as Minnesota (until we switch back to standard time – when we’ll be the same as EST).

The school in Quito wanted Tom to start as soon as possible, so he arrived in Ecuador June 7 and went to work.  I thought I’d get the house on the market later in June, but underestimated the work (of course). The 4th of July came and went, and then finally the house went on the market July 11.  We had a purchase agreement 5 days later, and closed August 12.  Tom quit his job to come home and help. The intervening weeks were hellish, but we did it.  We cleared out of the house only 54 hours AFTER the closing.  The agents were getting nervous, but it wasn’t like we could plop the mess down someplace else and sort it out later.  We sold stuff; we donated lots; we packed and filled a couple storage units with art, books, and miscellaneous keeper items; and we trashed several dumpsters-worth of things that didn’t fall into any of the previous categories. All this within weeks. It is hard for me to remember now if I kept the braided rug, the little mission desk, the rice cooker, the whatnots, or if I sold them, stored them, trashed them, or lent them to the kids.  History.

After selling the house and getting a couple other details in order, we arrived in Quito on August 26.  I had a few days to try to get my bearings while Tom showed me around, then we got the call that Tom’s Dad had passed away. So we were back in Iowa for about 3 weeks, and returned September 20.  It was sort of a false start here, but a worthwhile, emotional, and memorable visit with family, especially Tom’s mother.

Now we have a few weeks of Ecuador under our belts. We’re living in a small studio apartment in the historic center of Quito, up a steep hill, with a 180 view of the city and the mountainsides beyond.  We can see snow-covered volcanic peaks on clear days.  The clouds and light are constantly changing as they wrap around the mountains and slide down through the valleys. The city is a strange mix of business activity, awful pollution, beautiful views, history, political turmoil, and some of the most calm and friendly people I’ve met.

Tom has cultivated one private student; I spent a couple weeks brushing up on my Spanish with private lessons.  We’ve mostly been here in town, but are planning now for travels around Ecuador and for visits from our kids.  We’d love to hear that you are coming to Quito so we can walk you up and down some mountains and show you around!

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