You might have noticed that I don’t contribute to my blog during the summer months. Ever since the Pandemic forced us back to Canada, and then into an abused shut-in of a century home in Vankleek Hill, Chantal and I have flown north each May to enjoy eastern Ontario’s brief yet splendid warm season. We are no longer what you’d call expats. We are more like Snowbirds in reverse.
A 133-year-old Canadian country home requires constant care and feeding. So too do our four grandchildren, who live directly across the street and who helpfully report to their parents what hour of day it is for us by what’s on our living room TV screen. (“They’re watching Jazz Channel. It must be dinnertime!”) We take them to soccer and have sleepovers. I work on the house and help my son with his restaurant. Chantal reads and gardens.
It’s a thoroughly bucolic lifestyle, though I can’t imagine why you’d be similarly charmed. So Papa Jefe goes dark. That is, until the first icy blast of northern air runs up my pant leg, and my shrivelled boys frog march me onto a Copa Airlines flight south: Montreal to Panama, Panama to Manta, and a 45-minute cab ride to our beachfront condo in San Clemente.
As too many people remind us, we’re…
Living the dream
If you think century homes are money pits, try living on the beach in South America. Everything rusts, with breathtaking speed. Concrete cracks and crumbles. Window frames warp. Paint peels. Kitchen appliances reveal the flaws in their stainless-steel finishes. Air conditioners become caked with salt and stop working. Linens go mouldy. It’s a nonstop, wallet-throttling siege.
We got back in early November and my honeydew list was this long. Two air conditioners on the fritz and another in dire need of a bath. Kitchen windows literally popping out of their frames. It also happens that our garage security door seized up over the summer, then disintegrated into a shower of rusty daggers when we dragged it open for the first time this season. That was an expense I hadn’t anticipated.
Fortunately, local contractors aren’t so rarefied a breed in Ecuador. Let it be known into the community that you’re hiring, and a few minutes later some affable nitwit named Elvis or Wilbur or Fabian rolls up to your door on a battered, single-cylinder, Chinese-made rattletrap of a motorcycle. In Canada, His Highness arrives in a preposterously oversized Chevy Silverado, dragging a cargo trailer stuffed with several hundred thousand dollars in tools. Here, buddy walks in with a roll of tape and a steak knife.
I’d be hard-pressed to decide who does a better job. I know for certain who costs less.
Unskilled labour is $25 a day in coastal Ecuador. That’s the price of two Happy Meals back home. Skilled labour, like a trained technician or installer, runs a bit higher but not much. Our garage door set me back $200 in materials and $120 for two tradesmen for two days. Beyond that, you’re dealing with novelty pricing. I refer specifically to the PVC storm windows we ordered last week from an architectural firm in Manta. PVC is a new concept in Ecuador. The polarized security glass must be imported, and there’s little competition. The quote for our entire apartment, including manufacture and installation, was slightly less than nine grand, US. Ouch.
The rest is paperwork
My passport expired while I was in Canada. Somewhere, in some official database, my permanent residency visa and my passport have a very intimate relationship. Which means, to get back into Ecuador, I had to travel with my expired passport and my new passport, a print copy of my visa, and my cedula (national photo ID). The customs agent took one look at the stack of documents I was carrying, and blanched. To say my entry was a process is to grotesquely understate the comic value of the moment.
Luckily, such administrative tasks as transferring visas to new passports can be performed at the immigration office in Manta, behind the big box KFC. All it takes is a lawyer who knows someone personally at said office, a completed application form, a passport photo, one year’s bank statements to prove that I can support myself in Ecuador without reliance on the state, $133 in cash for various fees and kickbacks, and, as my lawyer wrote in an email, “three-to-four hours of my time.”
He wasn’t kidding about the three-to-four hours. Thanks to climate change and a particularly onerous El Niño, Ecuador’s hydro reservoirs are near empty. Ergo, we’re enjoying nationwide rolling blackouts every day for 1.5 hours a day.
Manta’s rolling blackout happened to occur during my appointment. Nobody who works at the immigration office bothered to show up that morning. So, my lawyer and I (and Chantal, who grew bored and wandered over to the Mall del Pacifico) sat outside like assholes, until the lights came on and our wayward government employees strolled back to their desks.
While waiting, an English-speaking Ecuadorian gentleman, who seemed to know my lawyer well, politely introduced himself to me and asked where I was from. Canada, I replied. I live in San Clemente. Are there many Canadians in San Clemente? he asked. A few, I said. There’s a Canadian community not far from here, he mused. Mirador San Jose, I answered grimly. I know it well.
Then, for whatever reason, the man apologized on behalf of his country. We have power outages, he said, and our government is not very efficient. I’m sorry for any inconvenience this is causing you.
It’s Ecuador, I sputtered incredulously. To which he took good-humoured offense. I hastily qualified my statement. It’s Ecuador and we accept things as they are. None of this bothers me. It’s the price I happily pay to live my dream.
Indeed, he said, and we shook hands.
Everything has its price
You see this all the time in the expat forums: some severely addled American of the MAGA persuasion, or sometimes a Canadian with Freedom Convoy sympathies (make of these what you will), sells everything back home and buys property in Ecuador, sight unseen. Then flies into a performative online hissy fit when so much of his or her new experience is not as advertised on House Hunters International. Whaddaya mean everyone speaks Spanish? Whaddaya mean health care ain’t free fuckin socialists? Whaddaya mean I can’t bring my guns? (Yes, these are real complaints.)
To which the rest of us, who spent years in research to prepare for this transition, reply: Sucks to be you.
Every dream has its price. Every price is paid with more than cash or time. If you come to a place like Ecuador and expect anything less than cross-cultural mayhem, then you are seriously unprepared for whatever this country throws at you.
Accept it. Accept all of it, with good humour and good grace. Life on the beach isn’t paradise. But it will do until your paradise gets here.