On 28 February, the power went out at Mirador San Jose. You may recall this from an earlier blog post. At the time, I blamed our annual rains, which typically arrive around the Carnival long weekend before Lent. Rainwater washes sea salt into the transformers and they pop like fireworks. Happens every year. Except this time, the lights never came back.

Turns out our developer, Inmirsan, absconded with the money we paid for utilities and left a parting gift of $130,000 in debt to CNEL, the state energy provider. (Inmirsan also owes half a million in back taxes; tens of thousands in employee wages and social security; and tens of thousands more to the company that secures our gates. Our guards walked off the job a few days later.)

If you were to demand an explanation, which we did, then Inmirsan’s managing director Danielle Charles would tell you, in her characteristically disordered and screamy way, that the reason she stiffed CNEL, and every other supplier on her books, is because some residents and lot owners didn’t pay their bills.

You may interpret this as follows: Inmirsan did nothing to resolve its delinquent accounts, but the blame was ours, uniformly. We were therefore responsible for Inmirsan’s debts. Like having your vehicle seized by police when a neighbour forgets to renew his plates.

Suffice it to say, CNEL took our collective default poorly. It cut off the entire community and refused to negotiate until someone made good on arrears.

Incredibly, no one at Mirador San Jose had a spare $130,000 lying about. We were two weeks in the dark when COVID-19 blew into town. That’s when our lives became interesting.

Never one to miss an opportunity to extort, Madame Charles ordered us to pay her $20,000 in cash or we could enjoy our pandemic experience sin electricidad. Those were her terms. We have them in writing. I won’t tell you which finger we offered in exchange.

Next morning, Chantal and I packed what we could carry, locked up our house, and drove with our neighbours, Dennis and Brenda Southgate, to Manta. Another friend from MSJ, Barb Law, rented a three-bedroom Airbnb in a nearly abandoned condo tower by the Mall del Pacifico. We stayed with Barb for a week, then caught a repatriation flight from Quito to Toronto.

Dennis and Brenda flew on to Calgary. Chantal and I went into mandatory quarantine in a hastily provisioned, half-renovated house owned by Chantal’s extended family in Trenton: a profoundly meaningful gift, for which we will always be grateful. We suffered 14 days with suspiciously plague-like symptoms: fever, extreme fatigue, dry cough. I lost my sense of smell, and therefore of taste. It has yet to return.

We’re better now, clearly. But we have nowhere to go. Our retirement plans are in ruins.

Shitstorm Insights

I would expect that a shitstorm of such epic proportion might offer at least a few takeaways. Indeed, it did, though they were never immediately apparent. After four weeks in mandatory and then self-imposed confinement, Chantal and I have had more than enough opportunity to reflect on the people and events that derailed our lives. Here’s what we learned.

1. Mirador San Jose Is a Fraud

I have written, perhaps too leniently, of our community’s travails. The palace intrigues between Inmirsan and Hola Ecuador; the incessant public squabbling among various French-Canadian factions; the slowly deteriorating expectations as our retirement dreams turned to cynicism and to squalor. These were things we could dismiss, so long as we had palm trees and fresh food and clear blue skies and long walks on endless beaches. The pandemic laid bare what was in front of us the whole time. Mirador San Jose is a fraud.

We fell for the slick PowerPoint presentation. I am not ashamed to admit it. At the time we purchased, our community was the envy of Ecuador. It carried the luster of official recognition from our diplomatic presence in Quito, and there were the many good works of its developer, when Inmirsan’s majority stakeholder was still alive.

After Marcel died and his wife and stepson assumed his shares (under highly unsavory circumstances, or so it is alleged), every dollar we put into our community simply vanished.

None of what we contributed in 2019 – not one penny of any paid invoice we have on file – made its way to CNEL. Or to Servicio de Rentas Internas del Ecuador (SRI, Ecuador’s internal revenue service). Or to IESS (social security). Or to Inmirsan’s employees. Or to the security company that guarded our gates. Or to maintenance of our common areas. Or to infrastructure.

Who knows where that money went? Madame Charles enjoys a lavish lifestyle in Manta, and the favours of certain high-profile individuals who also have properties at Mirador San Jose. Perhaps they can tell us what happened to it.

Chantal and I spent five years to meticulously plan our retirement. We took another 16 months to establish ourselves in the luxury oceanfront development Hola Ecuador promised.

We never bargained for the weeds or the rats or the degraded common property, or the mounds of garbage festering in the heat. But that’s what we received for our investment. That, and an individual so disturbingly consumed by her own psychopathy that our very lives became hers to negotiate.

It seems impossible to imagine. I guess that’s what every sucker tells himself, once the grift becomes obvious.

2. Our Neighbours Are Terrible People

My good buddy Tom, owner of South of Zero café, told me one evening that he thought he knew his neighbours until the pandemic arrived. I said shit got real, and so did our friends. Nothing strips away the veneer of civility like a world-ending catastrophe.

When it became clear that real trouble was afoot, Chantal and I and the Southgates formed a crisis committee to manage Mirador San Jose’s cascading failures. We recruited competent, trustworthy people to organize security, water management, health services, business relations, logistics, and fundraising. I took communications. Chantal was crisis operations.

Within 24 hours, half the community – good folks with big hearts and homes to protect – volunteered for service or donated money to finance the recovery.

The other half wasn’t nearly so supportive.

Almost immediately after we announced ourselves, we received email and Facebook abuse from the fantasy HOA’s batshit contingent. Others demanded to know why a bunch of Anglos had any right to issue orders to French Canadians.

Some undermined our efforts by refusing to follow volunteer directions. Some left the community for infection zones, then declined to self-isolate when they returned. Some showered their cars or drowned their gardens the moment we purchased a truckload of water to fill the communal cisterns.

One night, the second of our relief effort, a close friend stormed uninvited into our home and shrieked at us like a panicky little bitch. He was wailing about absent security at our front gates, when I knew we had rotating shifts of volunteers on guard. He categorically refused to accept that we were already on it. He then called the woman I respect most – my wife: the retired RCAF command officer, business continuity expert, and strategic analyst who authored Canada’s national defence pandemic plan – unfit for leadership. I invited him to leave. Which is to say, I tossed him off my property. That was the last we spoke.

This Dunning-Kruger test subject, who has no leadership training or management experience, seized control of our crisis committee when we left Mirador San Jose a week later. He had the remaining volunteers in fistfights by sundown. For good measure, he sent the entire community a deeply insulting Facebook message about what he thought of Chantal’s decisions, then cancelled our planned-and-paid-for insect fumigation. Tom caught dengue as a result.

The guy stepped down two days later, thank goodness. There have since been four iterations of our original crisis committee. None survived longer than a week or two. But the tribes still bicker on Facebook. It’s what they do best.

Perhaps infighting will resolve Mirador San Jose’s problems.

Perhaps I’ll finally get that date with Salma Hayek.

3. Our Hearts Are Ecuadorian

We may never return to Rancho Loco. But we’ll certainly fly home to Ecuador. One day, when the pandemic withdraws and our borders reopen, we’ll be back. Our hearts are Ecuadorian.

We’ll keep our home at MSJ. But we’ll use it only for coastal vacations or the odd Airbnb. We would prefer to spend our time in the Sierra. Perhaps Cotacachi or Ibarra. Maybe Vilcabamba. It’s where we feel we belong.

In the meantime, we have no place in Canada to live and belongings in pricey, long-term storage. So, we bought a house. Sight unseen on the Internet, and probably to the chagrin of my eldest son: it’s in Vankleek Hill, directly across the street from his. One hour from Ottawa and one hour from Montreal: two cities I once called home.

That was a strange decision, I must say. But we had our boxes and this house checked most of them.

Rural village, away from expensive city-slicker temptations: check. Structurally sound but with projects enough to accommodate at least 18 months of shelter-at-home guidance: check. Room in the back for a pool, workshop, outdoor cook station, courtyard, and gardens: check. Close to the grandkids: check.

Cheap: check.

We close on the eighth and move in the fourteenth. Once we’re settled, I suppose we’ll have plenty of time to adapt to our new reality. Whatever that turns out to be.