Four Countries in Four Months
From January through April 2018, my wife, Paulette and I felt like homeless vagabonds aimlessly wandering. It wasn’t the happiest time of our retirement, and we had no clear direction for our lives. We had lived in Cuenca, Ecuador for 3 months. By the first week in January 2018, we had decided that Cuenca was not the answer for us. We also knew we had to return to Boquete, Panama. Why? Because, after living in Boquete, Panama for 17 months, we had accumulated quite a bit of “stuff”. When we left, we didn’t know what our plan would be, so our landlord let us store our stuff in his house. Now it was time to make some decisions.
During these 4 months, we spent time in 4 different countries – Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and the U.S. While in the US, we made it to 7 states plus Washington, D.C. We left our “home” in Ecuador and didn’t find another until our second month in Medellin, Colombia. We stayed with three sets of friends plus my sister, several Airbnb’s and at least 10 hotels I remember. That’s why I call this post “Homeless Vagabonds Aimlessly Wandering”.
January 2018 – Leaving Ecuador
After living in Panama for 17 months, we left on September 16, 2017, for our 4-month trip to South America. After over a month touring Colombia and Peru, we visited and enjoyed Cuenca, Ecuador for 3 months. We had a wonderful time, and we were sorry to leave. But before we left, several friends said the Pacific coast of Ecuador was beautiful, and we should check it out. So being the adventurers we are, we took the bus from Cuenca, past Cajas National Park, to an elevation of 13,500 feet, then down the mountain through the fog to Guayaquil near the coast. It was another memorable experience!
In Latin America, most of the bus terminals are part of very large malls. And that describes the terminal in Guayaquil. After waiting an hour or so, we caught another bus to the Pacific beach towns and played tourists for 3-4 days. Being right on the Equator, the ocean water was comfortable, and we enjoyed our last few days in Ecuador on the beach.
Isla de la Plata
While there, we visited a small island called Isla de la Plata. As we arrived, the boats were surrounded by sea turtles, and we got to swim with them for a few minutes. On the island, I was able to see several Blue-Footed Boobies. It was a very hot day, and there is no natural shade on the island. So one parent or the other had to stand over the baby to protect it from the sun until its feathers grow. After the walk, Paulette and I got to have a refreshing swim in the Pacific one last time before heading back to port.
January 2018 – Return to Boquete, Panama
I mentioned our stuff. It included kitchen equipment, office equipment, all sorts of linens for bath and bedroom, extra clothing, Sunday School teaching supplies, outdoor equipment, a bass guitar (that I never learned how to play), my golf clubs, and many more items. We had given some of our items away back in September, but there was still a lot left. Knowing we didn’t want to live in Panama, we knew we had to either give away, sell, or move our belongings. We counted 30 boxes including 8 suitcases and my set of golf clubs. San Jose, Costa Rica was just an 8-hour bus ride away, and it seemed the most logical next place for us. Costa Rica is one of the most popular retirement destinations in Central America.
February 2018 – We move to San Jose, Costa Rica
We thought Costa Rica would be our home for at least the rest of 2018, so we didn’t want to give away everything. But could we transport everything from Panama to Costa Rica? Another travel adventure for Paulette and Steve! That turned out to be surprisingly uneventful and easy. I decided to do it in two trips. Boquete had a bus line of former school buses that went directly to David, which is the second-largest city in Panama. From there, I caught the 1-hour bus ride to the border with Costa Rica. On the first trip, I took 15 boxes on the bus and offloaded them at Panama customs. After that, everything went back on the bus for the 2-block ride to Costa Rican Immigration. I unloaded everything again for Costa Rica Customs. It was a long, complicated process, but it went smoothly.
Once I cleared customs, I asked for help. Someone called a relative and a few minutes later, here came a pickup truck. The driver took me and the luggage a few miles to the next town where I rented a hotel room to stash the boxes, suitcases, etc. Then I returned to Boquete. The next day, Paulette and I took the other 15 boxes and suitcases and left Boquete to again catch the bus from David to Costa Rica. We went through the same exercise, received a few funny looks from the customs people, but made it through. The same truck met us at the border, took all our luggage to the next town and dropped it and Paulette at the bus station. (As I said, we are adventurous!)
Then the driver and I went to the hotel, which was across the street, loaded the luggage from the hotel and dropped it at the bus station. We then boarded our new bus, now with 30 pieces of luggage, and headed to San Jose.
Costa Rica was a Surprising Disappointment
Two things tipped us off that we were not making the best relocation decision. For one, Costa Rica was the first place we moved to without any excitement or anticipation. We had this attitude of “We have no other good choice, so we might as well try it and see.” That was not exactly a ringing endorsement, to say the least. Second, we went without a plan. Looking back, I think we weren’t paying close attention to the signs we were seeing. But hopefully, you can get some benefit from this story and maybe avoid some of our mistakes.
San Jose is Not a Great Place For Retirees
Within a day or two, we knew Costa Rica wasn’t for us. The place we had booked for our initial few days turned out to be unacceptable, complete with lukewarm water and a “suicide shower”. And the ants were everywhere! The next day, we hired a truck to take us and all our luggage to another place. The directions were horrible, and we searched for about 2 hours and made several phone calls before finally finding the place.
Let’s just say the second place was worse than the first. So we found a hotel. Our poor truck driver and I had not realized what that day would be like. I tipped him generously, apologized several times, and we were finally able to put that day behind us. At least the hotel was very nice and the valet was able to store most of our luggage.
Everything in Costa Rica is Expensive!
I think I could live in Houston for less than in Costa Rica. And even though we had been through the country several times, we had never spent any time living there. We stayed in the hotel for several days before finding a more permanent situation. We found a small studio apartment on Airbnb for a discounted price of $1,200 for 1 month. There was no convenient public transportation, so we took cabs or Uber everywhere we went. After living in Panama and South America, the restaurants in San Jose were outrageously expensive. I don’t think we ever got out for less than $40 and in many cases, we split a dinner.
The final straw was when we found a TGI Friday’s, took an expensive cab ride, took a look at the menu and saw they wanted $18 for a Cobb Salad! After about a week in San Jose, we started looking for other options, even though we still had 3 weeks to go for our apartment lease. If we were leaving, we had to decide what to keep and the rest simply had to be given away. We then learned that we had to return to the US for at least a few weeks for a legal matter. So at the end of February, we headed to the airport with 11 suitcases to fly Southwest Airlines back to Houston.
March 2018 – We Return to the USA
Only 10 of the suitcases made it to the airport – our suitcase with kitchen stuff was unfortunately left at the airport hotel. By the time we discovered this, we were in Houston, and the hotel was not going out of their way to help us. Fortunately, we knew a missionary family who picked up the missing suitcase and put those things to very good use. (Also included was my ping pong paddle with the case, so hopefully, that found a home too).
March and April were a real low point for us, except for a few weeks when we got to spend time with some old friends. It had looked to me like God was making provision for us to stay in the US. We purchased a car that we needed if we were going to be in the U.S. for any time at all. Our efforts to resolve the legal matter were fruitless and resulted in additional costs. Fortunately, March is the month my sister usually goes skiing, so she graciously let us stay in her home.
Hot Springs Village, Arkansas
Hot Springs, Arkansas has always been one of our favorite vacation places. We even bought a time-share condo there many years ago. During one of our trips, we learned about a huge retirement development called Hot Springs Village. In the back of our minds, we had always thought we might retire there. So during March, we took a “check-it-out trip” to see if it could be our permanent stop. The first thing we found was that March in Arkansas is still very cold! We had not been cold since we left Houston 2 years before. This “Seasons” thing was going to take getting used to.
Otherwise, we liked “The Village”. It offers retirees many benefits and is in a very scenic part of the country. There are many articles about cheap places to live in the US, and Arkansas is one of those places. We liked what we saw and looked at small homes to buy. We ended up spending a total of two weeks there split up by a short trip back to Houston. After contacting a terrific realtor, we found a lovely home that seemed perfect for our needs and we made an offer that was accepted. It looked like we had made a decision.
Our trip across the US
It was going to take a month before we could close on the purchase. We had several long-time friends we had hoped to see in the eastern half of the US and they offered to let us come for a visit. We made many great memories and renewed friendships with people we had not seen in several decades. Here are a few of our favorite pics.
A few photos from our trip to East Coast USA – (1) Elvis’ Pink Cadillac at Graceland, (2) Beautiful Paulette and the Azaleas of Wilmington NC, (3) Our founding fathers were certainly prepared for intruders in Williamsburg VA, (4) Paulette and some old guy (me) in front of a Cherry tree in DC, (5) Washington DC Cherry tree in full bloom.We drove from Arkansas to Washington, D.C., then down the East Coast. We then headed back to Arkansas, stopping for a week in South Carolina and another week in Nashville, Tennessee.
Returning to the U.S. Would Be Too Expensive
During that trip, we had a big dose of financial reality. We looked at all the costs we were about to incur and then compared that to our income and other financial resources. If you can pay cash for a house and car, your living costs can be at least mostly covered by Social Security. It still won’t cover everything, but it at least comes close.
Unfortunately, we were going to have both a mortgage payment and a car payment. By the time we stopped counting, our living costs in Arkansas were going to be more than double our monthly Social Security. And we were pretty sure there would be other costs we weren’t considering. We looked at each other and Paulette was the first to say it – “We can’t do this! This isn’t God’s plan for us.” Now, what do we do?
God’s Plan – Start an English Speaking Church in Medellin
Before we visited Colombia in September 2017, our assistant pastor in Boquete told us about plans for a Christian Church for English speakers in Medellin. We talked with the leaders, but we had two big problems. First, the leadership responsibilities they were describing seemed way beyond our abilities. Second, we seriously looked for several days and never found an apartment we could afford. With no place to live and nowhere to serve, we decided to keep looking.
Three months later, some friends from Boquete told us they felt a call to Medellin. They were going to lead the effort to start a church. Also, while we were in Cuenca, several people told me I was wrong about the cost of living in Colombia. They convinced me that we had simply been looking in the wrong places during our visit to Medellin. And the other bright spot was that the cost to obtain residency in Colombia was only about $1,000 for a 3-year visa and Cedula (National ID card).
When One Door Closes, Another Opens
As the doors were closing in the US, God opened them in Medellin, Colombia. In the end, the decision was pretty easy. We terminated the contract on the home in Arkansas, drove back to Houston, and sold the car back to the dealer. We found a small storage room for a few things, including my golf clubs, and boarded the plane for Medellin, Colombia.
The rest, as they say, is history. Medellin is now our home, and we couldn’t be happier! We have a very nice inexpensive apartment, and we spend substantially less than our monthly Social Security. Colombia’s National Health Insurance plan covers both of us for about USD 40 per month. Many of our prescriptions and doctor visits are either free or cost under USD 5.
We worked side-by-side with our friends. They and God trained and equipped us for ministry for 10 months. We started Grace Church Medellin in March 2019. Recently we formed our 3rd small group. Our support group consists of faithful Christian missionaries and other people God has called alongside. Our best friends are people we didn’t even know existed 2 years ago.
No Longer Homeless Vagabonds Aimlessly Wandering
We are no longer homeless vagabonds aimlessly wandering. God has a plan, (He always did!) For His reasons He has chosen to work that plan through us. And we are truly thankful He has.
“God is good. All the Time. All the Time, God is good.”
Please leave a comment below. Tell me what you think and how I can give you better info.