In the last post, I told the story of how my life gradually stopped working for me, and how I extricated myself from burdens that had become too heavy. My husband Steve and I were ready for the next step, but we didn’t really know what that would be. Over the two-year process of disassembling the structure of our lives, we brainstormed, researched, talked, and explored.
There is something about my frame of mind I need to convey to those who have not experienced it: I was a professional, a chiropractic doctor. I was very good at what I did, both in diagnosis and in the skills of manipulation. I had a practice which I grew from one adjusting table and a typewriter to a 15-employee practice employing other chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists. I would not trade the experience for anything; it gave my adult life meaning and structure. The achievement of success built self-respect and helped me learn my strengths and weaknesses. The joy of relieving pain and suffering was a warm sustaining glow that drew me to the office every day. However, being self-employed is a level of unrelenting responsibility which wears a person down. Everything, from the clogged toilet to the corporate tax return, from how the phone is answered to how the billing is sent out, from the advertising to the color of the carpet, every decision comes back to you. Being a healthcare provider employing others adds another burden of oversight: if one patient is incorrectly treated, one diagnosis missed, one piece of wrong advice given, it is ultimately your responsibility. Employees come and go, and none of them cares as much as you do about the quality of the care you provide. When you leave for vacation, surgery, or maternity leave, not only do you not get paid for the time you are gone, you have to pay someone else to do your job for you, because you can’t just abandon your patients. The sense of being trapped overwhelmed me at times. 28 years being in the harness of this vocation, and solely supporting my family with it, left me with a craving to experience all the variety I had been tethered too tightly to experience.
We had both lost parents in the past decade, driving home the point that life is short and there are no do-overs. It was time to start checking off the bucket list.
Yet, Steve and I are both homebodies, fitting well into the classic description of our mutual astrological sign, Cancer. We both like to recharge and refresh by snuggling down into a home or nest of some type. We both like to squirrel away treats and useful items; we both love to cook and eat good food. We were pushing our tolerances by making drastic changes as it was. Living out of suitcases indefinitely would be just a bit too far outside our comfort zone.
Some of the things we considered and laid aside (with good reason):
A treehouse in the wilderness (bad knees); sailing around the world (neither of us knows how to sail and my wrists are bad); taking religious orders and/or mission trips (both kind of disillusioned with our respective religions); hitchhiking around the US (he worried about safety, I’d already done it in my 20s); hiking the Appalachian trail (knees again, both of us too obese); buying a berth on the World ship (too expensive); living off the grid in Montana or Alaska (wrists, knees, joints, and I hate the cold); flying my small plane around North America (Steve hates to fly).
So, we had many crazy ideas, but came down to four we really liked:
- Buy a condo on a mountain in the highlands of North Carolina and retreat there, living frugally and writing or tinkering.
- Buy a camper trailer and live a peripatetic life exploring North America.
- Move to Latin America and learn a new language, spending less money for a lifestyle less frugal than we could achieve in the US.
- House-sit around the world for various people with property who needed to leave it.
We made several trips to North Carolina. We love the rounded mountains of the high country there, and we love the town of Asheville, where we honeymooned in 2007. We spent a lot of time on real estate websites, pricing different apartment homes and townhouses.
We visited a place which seemed, on paper and online, ideal: Mountain Air, a private community atop a mountain near Burnsville, North Carolina, with a runway for small planes. We flew up and stayed at their lodge and ate at their clubhouse. We watched the mist roll up the mountains and recede, leaving the blue ridges that give the range its name fading imperceptibly into the sky. We strolled their golf course trails and tagged along on a scavenger hunt. Ultimately, though, the idea of being trapped on a mountain all winter with a bunch of rich white people was claustrophobic for us. I grew up in Manhattan and he grew up in Tampa. We are both intrigued by human variety and fascinated by the different stories of people’s lives. We decided in the end that Mountain Air would have been the same stories over and over.
We enrolled in a couple of house-sitting websites. Some great opportunities were available: Switzerland, Vail, South of France, Hong Kong… Did I mention that I have a 15-year-old cat? Tapioca is a sweetly devoted gutter rescue; she looks like a purebred Siamese and has the loving temper
ament of the breed. She’s brought me through bereavements, betrayals, divorce, and disability, curling up to me and purring my tears away. She’s tolerated toddlers and puppies and welcomed new love to my life, graciously ceding her quadrant of the bed to Steve. Every country has a different set of requirements for bringing in a pet animal, some of them involving lengthy quarantines. To live a house-sitting lifestyle, I’d have to leave her behind. Not happening. Not negotiable.
We seriously considered the camper-trailer. We knew we loved camping: both of us had done primitive camping in our youths. As we got older and creakier and fatter, crawling in and out of tents and sleeping on hard ground became less appealing. We had camped for five years in a pop-up camper, but even the setup on that had become painful for our aging joints and so we sold it. The next step
seemed to be a hard-side camper. We would have bought one that was light enough to pull with an ordinary SUV, and we had our eye on one particular brand, custom-built in Minnesota, with wood interiors and a floor plan that seemed very workable. “What about your plane?” Steve asked. I suggested that I fly from locale to locale and he drive the camper, picking me up at the airports. He didn’t like the idea of driving hundreds of miles at a time by himself. Plus, the insane price of private health insurance in the US, combined with the price of plane maintenance, would have limited our budget. We would have been at the mercy of wildly-swinging gasoline prices. The out-of-control Customs and Border Patrol was developing a liking for searching campers and trailers anywhere within 100 miles of any border (1/3 of the country). Reading some stories about campers that had been confiscated from ordinary people, without any evidence of wrongdoing, gave us pause.
Those stories were only part of a bigger picture. Michael Brown, Dillon Taylor, and numerous other stories showed that US police were morphing from community peacekeepers to an occupying military force. The USA PATRIOT act, which should have been allowed to expire after the panic of 9/11 subsided, continued to be reauthorized year after year, and the juggernaut of spying and Kafkaesque bureaucracy it created continued to grow. The mass media were showing ever more clearly that they were turning into a Soviet-like government press organ, regurgitating press releases and talking points. Under the pretext of protecting intellectual property and preventing fraud, the global communication miracle of the early 2000s was being strangled by regulations limiting the flow of content, placing Americans back in a cocoon of misinformation. The TSA, despite its utter uselessness at its purported function, continued to harass travelers and steal their belongings, and was starting to expand outside of airports to buses and railway stations. On the medical front, proposals for compulsory mental health drugging and compulsory vaccination for adults and children showed a disturbing trend towards the US violating rights to self-determination. On the economic front, it was clear that the US financial system was functioning to game the international currency markets and funnel money into the pockets of giant corporations. In short, the US was looking less and less like the land of the free. A growing sense of anxiety was gnawing at both of us to get away before things got even worse.
Latin America, then? A string of Central and South American countries were achieving a growing success by emulating Costa Rica. These places welcomed American expats (many of them retirees). They had reasonable residence visa plans and communities where expats could cluster while learning to adapt to their new lands. We visited Belize and Honduras. We researched Mexico and Guatemala. We considered Panama. A common thread in these places was that a person could rent (or buy, if so inclined) a roomy dwelling for a fraction of the cost in the US; food, transportation, and healthcare were also more reasonable. The lower cost of living would mean that we could live below our means on my monthly disability payout, saving some money for travel and emergencies.
Finally, we focused on Ecuador, where the climate varied from mountains to islands, from beach to rainforest. We made a visit in January-February of 2015. We found a country rich in indigenous and colonial tradition, yet embracing 21st century technology. We learned that the healthcare system was modern enough and inexpensive enough to support a growing market of medical tourism from North America. We enjoyed traveling both within and between cities in inexpensive, comfortable, and frequent buses. We saw unarmed police mingling placidly with bustling crowds. We savored an abundance of fresh fruits, fish, meats, and vegetables in local mercados. Children with innocent faces played joyfully at the feet of their doting parents, and a group of teenage boys who surrounded us in the park (scaring me for a moment) turned out to be English students who talked with us for almost an hour and became Facebook friends once we returned home. We enjoyed Quito with its frenetic pace; we disliked Guayaquil with its crowded, dirty, crime-filled streets and humid heat. But when we visited the mountain town of Cuenca, we felt a glimmer within our hearts that told us this might be our new home.
Once our house sold, our lives were taken over by a maelstrom of boxes and garage sales, junk trucks and storage lockers. In the midst of the chaos, Steve and I made sure to take time here and there to reconnect and reflect. One day, sitting on the back porch in the sun, I looked at him and said, “I’m feeling: Cuenca.” He smiled and said, “I’m so relieved to hear you say that. That’s what I’ve been feeling too.”
Next post: the transition.