In some ways, nothing has changed. Mirador San Jose remains a textbook example of social pathology. We’re three weeks in country and already being assaulted by our neighbours.

A couple nights ago, some guy down the street from us, whom I barely know, texted to inform me that he thinks Chantal and I are assholes. He didn’t give a reason why.

Thanks for the tip, buddy, but this isn’t news to me. I do, however, draw the line when you go after my wife. Chantal is the finest person I know. Which means she’s way out of your league.

That former friend, who for some reason outed himself in public as Panicky Little Bitch, relentlessly taunts me like the classroom mean girl on social media. His mush-minded entourage obediently mimics every snide remark, then high-fives itself for the witty repartee. Over and through it all, MSJ’s general manager and necrotic psychopath, Danielle Charles, haunts the project like a rancid fart. It really is her community now. These people seem to flourish in her stench.

In most other ways, everything has changed. Last March, when the pandemic seethed and Ecuador was tilting on the brink, our Prime Minister told us to repatriate and we did. The seven-hour drive from Manta to Quito, for our humanitarian flight home, was a thing I can never forget.

We passed pueblos that had hastily barricaded themselves with tree trunks and chunks of cement; men with machetes guarded the perimeter from infected outsiders. We crawled through military checkpoints, while unsmiling soldiers brazenly levelled their weapons at any driver who neglected to yield for fumigation. Tolls were open and abandoned. A few derelict automobiles littered the roadside. There wasn’t a soul on the highways. We had diplomatic transit papers and even these, we thought, would not see us safely to the airport. Our driver Elvis (yes, Elvis) concealed our cash under the faux lining of his dashboard. His eyes over his surgical mask were – no, not nervous. Terrified.

This is it, I remember thinking. This is what the end looks like.

Back, but to what?

Now we’re back, to fulfill the obligations of our residency visas, and Manta is not quite the place we left behind. Mercato centrale is half empty, unless you’re a market-is-half-full kind of person. Entire strip malls are boarded up. Flavio Reyes’ discotecas are closed – no biggie to me: I dance like I’ve been tasered. Everyone wears a mask. It’s hard to breathe in the heat, but you get a ticket if the policia catch you without one.

A lot more people cycle to and from work, and the city has installed bicycle lanes. (Not a bad thing.) My favourite place of all, the sprawling oceanside fish market, is barely there except perhaps on weekends. Venezuelans trick you out of your car by pointing excitedly at a back tire, and then they mug you. This hasn’t happened to me, but the expat forums are riddled with stories. Desperate times…

As in Canada and elsewhere, the pandemic in Ecuador has accelerated trends that were already under way.

You can order food at restaurants by scanning a QR code. This definitely wasn’t a thing in the before times. Also, my new Banco Guayaquil smartphone app can now be used for actual banking. Hours spent in line to pay bills are finally, thankfully, over. The guards still gesture to remove your hat, if ever you do wander into a branch. So the cameras can see your face. But wearing a mask is okay.

We’re happy to hang again with Dennis and Brenda, who repatriated with us and are back in Ecuador from Calgary. We kept in touch throughout the summer and fall, with occasional Zoom quarantinis. Last week, Tom and Karen closed South of Zero, their beloved café, with much sadness. The bit of their business Danielle Charles’ three-week blackout didn’t kill, the pandemic finished off for good. Luis and Yessenia, our friends in Puerto Cayo, welcomed us home with a massively meaty barbacoa. I miss Sticky Cow ribs. But Luis’ grilled chancho would make a vegan weep with envy.

Retirement 2.0

It’s hard to know where to start our Retirement 2.0. Mirador San Jose is over for us. We’re renting a very comfortable beachfront condo to the south of Manta. Chantal continues to consult with the Strategic Joint Staff. I spend my days preparing our house for Airbnb… assuming tourism ever returns. I think it will.

When people ask, I say it’s wonderful to be home. Except we’ve nowhere to go that doesn’t place us in viral jeopardy. Like everywhere else, I guess. I had it in mind all this time that our return would be to grand adventures in the Andes or Galapagos. Browsing the artisans’ markets in Otavalo. Hiking the Quilotoa Loop.

Seriously, what’s the point? We’ve had too many close calls already. Our Via Rail train from Alexandria to Montreal had an infected employee on board, and we wound up self-isolating for 10 days. Puerto Cayo is currently in outbreak, or so says Luis. He cautioned us not to visit, especially the cabaña restaurants along the malecón. We dined in one the evening before he texted.

I expect life will continue this way for many more months, now that the vaccine’s arrived. It’s really not that bad. In fact, it’s downright paradisiacal, comparatively. Canada will soon impose new travel restrictions. Some provinces are building field hospitals. Ontario and Quebec are in stay-at-home orders. It’s an utter shitshow. I don’t even know what to call it anymore.

In the middle of everything, in the wee hours of this morning, our third grandchild arrived. A tiny act of faith. Spencer Pierre Whittall, seven pounds five ounces. He has the big, blocky hands of a fighter. He’ll need them.

Welcome to the show, kid. One day, far from now, when I’m very old, you and I will watch the sun set over the Pacific. And I won’t tell you about the worst year in anyone’s living memory.