Sick and Alone in Mexico

I doubt many of us are really prepared for the serious medical emergency while we are traveling. No matter how well prepared or how seasoned a traveler, when the doctors say “surgery,” you quake inside.

One Saturday evening in my second week on Oaxaca, I became doubled up with intestinal cramps and pain that lasted all night. It let up a bit and so I waited till Monday to go to the doctor. He listened to my symptoms and said “amoeba.” I took the prescribed meds and nothing changed. The pain was acute.

I found another doctor who again treated me for amoeba, and still there was no change. Now it was getting worrisome, and I was getting scared. After a series of tested, including a colonoscopy which could not be finished because of severe and infected blockage, my doctor started mention “surgery.”

This is when the alone part of traveling alone became an issue. First, of course, alone is not the way to be for a medical emergency, especially one that takes you into the finer workings of a foreign medical system. You need someone to talk to and to go to the doctor’s with you, because in the circumstances, your judgement may not really be the best. Hand holding is called for, and someone to talk you off the ledge of extreme fear. Someone soothing who will both let you cry and talk you out of weeping.

Second, in many countries, including Mexico, you are expected to have someone at the hospital with you, and someone to care for you post-operation. Of course everyone back home is working, or if they aren’t, like say a young adult grandson, they don’t have a passport. I checked in with everyone. I got lots of sympathy and concern and apologies for not being available, but it isn’t the same and doesn’t help you with the practicalities of recovery.

So here I was alone and afraid. Between the pain fear, I was crying a lot. A neighbor helped me some with diagnostic appointments, which was helpful, but I didn’t really know her. I sure could not ask her to help me through the whole process.

But it ended up not being necessary to have help this time. My condition started improving, which seems to have had something to do with the total cleansing necessary for the aborted colonoscopy. Between the colonoscopy and a cat scan a few days later, I had started healing. It was then that the doctor told me he had been convinced it was cancer, but it wasn’t, and I was healing well.

This, of course, has been a learning experience. I guess the most important consideration is whether or not you are comfortable having surgery in a developing country. If my cat scan had shown the same condition that the colonoscopy did, then for sure they would have wanted to operate pretty immediately. To go to the US for the surgery, where I have no established relationship with a doctor or medical system, would have postponed things for too long. But everyone was encouraging me to do just that. My doctor assured me that the surgeon here was excellent, and I have been assured by many that the hospital is very good.

Insurance is another issue. For me, at least. I travel “bareback,” meaning I have no medical insurance except for Medicare in the US. Self insuring is good for doctor’s visits and such, but surgery is a different story. My doctor told me the whole thing would be under $2000 US. I have set aside savings with exactly this eventuality in mind. Fortunately all of the testing and the doctor’s visits came to under $300.

I was extremely lucky. First and foremost because I found a doctor who had trained in the US, and who had grown up there. He has practiced in Oaxaca for over 20 years, so he is totally integrated, and integral to, the local medical establishment. His English is spoken with no accent and he understands the needs of American patients. In case you find yourself needing a doctor in Oaxaca, his name is Alberto Zamacona, and most call him Doctor Z.

I was lucky beyond what I every could have expected by having recovered without having surgery. For that I am grateful both to the ministrations of my doctor, and to my excellent immune system. I have been stunned by my recovery.

So, that was my month in Oaxaca. Now I have a couple of weeks left to enjoy the beautiful city and get acquainted with more than the medical system.

Leaning Towards Mexico

There is really no deciding where it is best to spend the rest of one´s life. It is all done with some bittersweet hope and trepidation. I´ve been too many places and have seen and experienced too much disappointment after having earnest confidence. I´ve read the stories of others whose hearts were broken by a place they fell in love with. Perhaps that is part of the reason I have been looking for so long, and have been mostly crest fallen at what I´ve seen.

But Mexico. In the last 14 years I have been in Mexico more time than in the US. I have worked there, a bit, and slept there a lot. I´ve invested in land there, only to be ripped off by my partner/good friend; a real soul crushing experience. I have few romantic delusions about Mexico. I am currently reading Under the Volcano, which should banish what remains of my fantasies. I think if I stay in Mexico, it will be a measured decision.

I landed back in Mexico City a couple of weeks ago, from Lima, Peru, and it didn´t take long to remember why it has always been my first and last choice. Why hadn´t I just decided that long ago? First, I am very concerned that I won´t qualify for residency with my very limited resources, besides, I still had exploring to do. The issue of financial requirements scares me. If I can´t get residency here, then I am back to the start in terms of finding a place. For a variety of reasons that I will try to  cover in another post, I was not satisfied with the options in South America.

I am set on Mexico for now. I have contacted an attorney, and I hope they can help me sort out the residency visa. Now is a good time to do this, as the dollar is at an all time high vs. the Peso, so at least it seems like I have more money than I do.

What is it about Mexico? That is the ephemeral aspect to choosing a place. I can give lots of practical reasons; I am learning the language, it is close to the US, I love the food and the culture, yada yada. But it comes down to walking the streets of Mexico City and feeling a part of it, and yet totally foreign. It gives me the psychic space I personally need while allowing and inviting me to be part of it.

If I stay, I will try to spend a lot of time in Mexico City. I imagine I will need to settle some place less costly, but I love the city. Here are some photos from the recent visit:

First, there is the architecture, the very bones of the City. The Cathedral is actually built upon the Aztec bones of old Tenochtitlan, upon and with the stones of the old empire. The architecture spans centuries and tells the history of the city. I think now the powers that be understand the importance of this and will protect it.

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Cathedral built atop Aztec Temple

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Bellas Artes

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Random building across from my hotel room

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Down a side street from the zocolo

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The Cathredal

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Abandoned building on the Alameda

And the food! My favorite two countries for street food are Thailand and Mexico. I really cannot decide between the two, but ranking Mexico with Thailand in terms of food says a lot. The food is cheap and plentiful, and of course, muy rico.

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And cool, stylish, joyful street life. Mexicans live hard and party harder.

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So, hopefully, it will be Mexico.

 

 

Assessment: Retirement in Colombia on a Pension

That is what this trip is about, assessing retirement options, though I do have to remind myself at times. So, after 6 weeks here and time in the two major cities and some small towns, I do have a few conclusions.

No real obstacles present themselves, to start with. The weather in the mountain regions (most of Colombian cities are in the mountain regions) stays well within the temperate range year round. Colombia is fairly well developed, and with rare exception you can find what you need. Airfares from the States are quite reasonable, and frequent from the cities. There are plenty of expats and a lot of them are doing interesting things, like producing hand-crafted foods, beers and wines, and raising organic produce.

One could easily find some work to do here. The government has an initiative to become bilingual, the second language being English, but it has a very long way to go. The good thing about that is that teaching jobs should be relatively easy to come by. In fact, the society seems to be on a general positive trajectory and I can see lots of opportunities to earn some extra money, from beer brewing to running hostels and restaurants. The town I am currently in, a very small but touristic town (mostly Colombians and international backpackers) is in desperate need of a few good restaurants.

People are generally friendly and helpful. The cities have world class museums and entertainment, as well as excellent restaurants. There is no shortage of outdoor stuff to do, in fact this is a superb country for every sort of sport.

Health care is getting very good here. Medical and dental tourism is developing, and there is a national health care system. I had the splendid opportunity to check out the emergency care in Bogota in a public hospital, which is the very minimal quality care you can expect. I got taken care of by an excellent doctor for the equivalent of $20, including an ambulance (free), the hospital visit, prescriptions and the taxi home. I wrote a detailed report here.

A retirement visa is relatively easy to come by in Colombia. The visa is based on your provable pension as a multiple of the minimum wage. The current necessary income is less than $700 a month.

Retirement visa (TP-7) – for the foreigner who receives a retirement income such as a pension from a public or private company or the government (Social Security). The requirement is a minimum of three times the minimum wage in Colombia. The minimum wage in 2016 is 689,454 pesos per month, so the minimum retirement income is only $629 per month at an exchange rate of 3,290 pesos. (source)

On the other hand, and there must be an other hand, there are some, well, considerations.

The peso has strengthened slightly since I’ve been here, but it seems the baseline is rock bottom 1800 pesos to the US$. Today it is close to its high at 3150 to the dollar (3400 is the recent high).  Things are ridiculously cheap at the moment (lunch from $2-3 US, and that is the major meal of the day). I stayed in good places in Medellin and Villa de Leyva for $10-11 a night for a private room with shared bath, kitchen and very quiet location. If the exchange rate strengthens to its highest rate, prices would nearly double. This is the reality. Two years ago the rate was at less than 2000 to the dollar. You should be cautious about retiring here if you are banking on the current exchange rates.

While the government may have a goal of bilingualism, it is a distant dream. I’m amazed at how few people have any grasp of English at all. Of course, I am equally aghast at the number of foreign tourists arrive here with no Spanish. In this little village in the midst of the countryside, I see people sit down and start prattling at the waitstaff in English, and seem put out when they aren’t understood. This is not a retirement scene like you can find in Mexico or Spain. I cannot imagine retiring to anywhere in Colombia without learning the language, and arriving with at least basic survival skills in Spanish.

While it is close by plane to the United States, unlike Mexico, the country feels far away. It is certainly part of its charm, but your friends probably won’t be jumping on a flight down very often. You will need to build a social circle here amongst the other foreigners and the Colombians. For the long term this is great for a lot of people, but I think it will also be an adjustment for many.

I think for me the biggest stumbling block is the exchange rates. The cost of living may remain relatively stable for people living on pesos, if you are getting an American pensions in US dollars, it could get rocky.

Realities of Retiring Abroad

I am re-posting this after my first month of traveling in South America. The realities of retiring abroad, vs the glossy fantasies of the internet and other media, are more clear to me now. I have been successful in traveling in Columbia for less than my Social Security pension, while enjoying some amazing places. But some of the places touted, even today in the latest International Living Newsletter, such as Medellin, which I wrote about here, don’t seem to me to be realistic for retirement unless you are a very comfortable pensioner with a cush bank account. Even then, getting old in Medellin would be a challenge. I am still optimistic, and could imagine settling in a place like Villa de Leyva, especially with glorious Bogota a couple of hours away for a good infusion of urban culture when desired.

Here is what I wrote last month:

“Retiring abroad is easier and more affordable than ever before. These days it really is possible to spend your days relaxing beneath palm fronds on a Caribbean beach, enjoying farm-fresh produce in a mountain haven with year-round spring weather, or wandering the storied streets of a historic and cultured European city…or all of the above.” International Living

The Internet bubbles over with advice for how to retire and live a happy life forever under the palm trees, being waited on by attentive hired help, eating, drinking, and playing cards with your fellow happy-as-hell expats.

A lot of online companies get rich hyping seminars, “webinars” and even what appear to be pyramid schemes, especially regarding real-estate.

Then there is the reality. Or, the realities.

The first reality is that most people reading my blog, not all, for sure, will fall into the bracket of those who will not be able to retire the way we think we should in our home countries. It is just true that the expectations we have come to have for how we want to live, how we should be able to live, may not be realistic.

“A global survey of people’s attitudes to retirement savings shows while Australians expect to spend 23 years in retirement, their money will run out after only just 10 years, leaving them on the age pension.” source

“The latest National Retirement Risk Index from the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College says that more than half (53 percent) of households risk falling more than 10 percent short of the retirement income they’ll need to maintain their standard of living. More than 40 percent of retirees are also at risk of running out of money for daily needs, out-of-pocket spending on health care or long-term care, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI).” source

So we come to consider the alternatives. What if we could meet our expectations elsewhere, where the sun always shines and the cost of living is half of what it is at home? We fantasize, and there are lots of snake oil salesmen willing to feed those fantasies.

The other reality is that moving to another country as an older adult is, well, to put it mildly, a challenge. The majority of us live close to where we were born. If we are Americans, that life generally was rather parochial. Americans tend to be monolingual, for example. It is not unusual to hear someone say that there is no real reason to travel, because we have it all in the States. If we aren’t parochial, we certainly are naive. I read recently where American expats without legal status were being deported from Mexico; one 70 year old didn’t know she needed a visa to live there.

Here are some considerations if you are thinking about moving abroad:

  • Family. I think this can be a deal breaker for some of us. If you have a close family or have family members who depend on you, or upon whom you depend, it is rather difficult to tear up roots. It isn’t insurmountable, but it should at least go into your calculation about where you retire. For North Americans, Mexico and Central America, and even South America can be possibilities, as well as the Caribbean. But know that Sunday dinners will be had without you. For Australians, there are places nearby, such as Bali or Malaysia.
  • Language. This is easier for North Americans, because Latin Americans speak Spanish, which is incomparably easier to learn than Indonesian. If you learn the basics of the language before moving some place, it will help a lot with the transition.
  • Friends and Social Life. If having a large group of friends and an active social life soon after arriving, then you have to choose your location accordingly. Be frank with yourself about how dependent a person you are. I found in my years in Asia that there were a lot of long nights of self-doubt for lack of a close group of like-minded people. I consider myself a very independent person who has spent many years living abroad in many countries.
  • Legal Matters. Where to begin? With a lawyer, probably. You need to know how to get your money and pension from your home country, how to get legal where you are going, and how to deal with legal matters when you get there, especially when it comes to contracts and real estate.
  • Health Care. This is crucial. There are a number of countries that are offering medical tourism and promoting their health care systems. But it isn’t free. Does your insurance from home cover you abroad? Certainly Medicare does not, at all. Can you get insurance where you are going (there are countries where this is possible, and some where it is dubious). If you live close to your home country and are able to travel there for your pensioners’ insurance that’s good for most things. If you have retired someplace and are permanently committed there, you will need to be able to rely on the local health care system. This ruled out Siem Reap, Cambodia for me, as I would want to go to Bangkok, Thailand for health care.
  • Food. Yes, this is an important consideration. Buying imported foods in developing countries will bust your budget. You love Thai food. Really? 3 times a day? Noodles or rice for breakfast? Rice and something else for lunch? Rice and (hopefully) something else for dinner? Most of it quite spicy?
  • Transportation. I can say unequivocally that I will be depending on public transport where I live. Can you live without a car? If not, can you afford a care where you are going, and insurance, and do you want to drive on the roads there? For most Americans, cars are a part of their identity. Factor this in to your thinking.

I’m sure I’m missing something. I would never advise against retiring abroad; it is a good solution for a lot of us. But do so with a very sober assessment of yourself and your circumstances. I have no regrets about having expatriated many years ago; it suits me. But I am no longer really of my country. When I go back, it isn’t my home. Life has gone on without me. This is yet another reality.

 

 

From Medellin to Bogota: A tale of 3 Towns: Part 3

At the end of a long winding ride uphill, the sight of Villa de Leyva was a relief from a day of travel.  Squat little white houses with red tile roofs scattered across the valley, backdropped by mountains, creates an almost too idyllic scene. Sort of a Colombian replica of the south of France, complete with nascent vineyards and resident fossils. There are no sprawling fields of lavender and sunflowers, but both grow here, so there could be, poppies too, I imagine.

What made it really feel perfect, though, was the cool fresh air after a couple of weeks of sweltering. This was the weather promised in the guide books, though a bit short on the rain. The same blistering drought was happening here, but the altitude alleviated the heat and provoked a breeze.

From the van to a taxi, as usual. The first hostel I went to, The Hostel Everest, I’ll just say, disappointed. I’ll spare details except to say that when the housekeeper runs downstairs to get change for your payment, be very clear about how much you have given her, and maybe even get it in writing. You may save a lot of pain and embarrassment.

After arguing pointlessly in stupidly bad Spanish with the housekeeper, I went to find another hostel. Right next to the plaza I found a nice little hostel, the TinVa, run by a lovely couple. I would stay here 11 days.

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The Hostel TinVa       Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

I went walking and found the picture perfect town plaza. Every picture of it online looks pretty much the same. and pretty much as it looks. Known as one of the largest plazas in the Americas, what is really remarkable about it is its simplicity. A small unadorned fountain anchors the center, the rest is cobblestones from the squat white buildings on the four sides to the fountain. On one side of the square sits a one story parish church, the rest of the surrounding buildings have tiendas, restaurants and bars. In the evening the bars fill up. and the restaurants try to. The major drink of choice is beer, Joker beer, and there are corners of the ground filled with bottle caps sporting card suits.

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Poker Players   Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

On Thursdays and Saturdays there are markets with producers from all over the valley, including organic farmers, some are Europeans who create beers, cheeses, salamis and chocolates.

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Organic Herbs    Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

 

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Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

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Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

This place seemingly has it all. But of course it doesn’t. I’ve walked the four corners, and I can see myself getting bored. I hate to admit it, and maybe if I had a group of friends here and a garden, well, maybe.

Okay, the specifics:

It meets be the beauty criteria, for sure. The climate is sort of at it’s hottest right now, and it is quite endurable, and mostly it’s perfect. The cost of living is great at the moment (it may get more expensive as the peso gets stronger). I’m learning the language, poco a poco, and I have some confidence that I’ll do fine at it.

The List (The Sorting Hat, part 2):

  1. Family and friends. With many affordable flights a day from Bogota, they family is reasonable close. I’ve already met a few fine people here, and went out for beers on the plaza with a fine gentleman who has great stories.
  2. Affordability. Rents are cheap here, in the $200 to $300 range. Living here for me is quite affordable.
  3. Legal Status. Legal residency in Colombia is quite manageable.
  4. People. Yes, I can see having friends easily here.
  5. Language. My Spanish improves daily. Colombian Spanish is clear, and the people I’ve met are patient.
  6. Culture. The pace is slow, for sure. But there are movies and music, good food, and Bogota 2 hours away.
  7. Climate.Somewhere close to perfect, unless snow is important to you, or blazing heat.
  8. Beauty. Cobblestone streets, white houses with deep wood balconies, overflowing with flowers, and wood shuttered windows shaded by red tile roofs. Oh me, of course I would prefer a bit more vibrancy and variety, but it is beautiful here.
  9. Access to  medical care. Bogota, 2 hours away.
  10. Terrain. Cobblestones streets, for all of their charm, are a challenge. I see many older people navigating with canes. My host at the hostel says his own arthritic knees have actually improved here due to the exercise. It is a concern.
  11. Food! When I go to markets as I travel, I find that some of them make me want to stop right there and get a kitchen. I prefer to cook my own food most of the time, and I love a lot of different cuisines, but there must be availability of fresh, local varied ingredients. Yes, this place meets these needs.
  12. Coffee. Colombia?
  13. Amenities. Internet, electricity, and the basic necessities. I’m not too fussed by not having access to big box stores, or even variety stores. Yes, more than the basics are here. Obviously good internet!
  14. Tranquility. Is too much possible? It verges on it. But the weekends are lively.

 

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Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

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Hostel Kitchen   Photo Credit: Joanne Bretzer

Reflections on Medellin

From what I had read online, I really had different expectations of Medellin. I think in the back of my mind I was expecting a Colombian version of Mexico City: A city with an historic center and colonial districts, and metro system tying them together quickly. The streets of Mexico City teem with street vendors and life. Music is most everywhere, as well  as delicious food.

Medellin is its own city. It has to be met on its own terms. Much progress has been made since the bad old days, which is the rhetorical point made every time Medellin is written about. But progress and industriousness do no translate into charm and grace. I imagined little neighborhoods with plaza centers where one could feel a part of a community. This might exist, but I didn’t see where or how.

If you search online, you will find many articles about how Medellin is a great place to retire. High on the list of pluses is the cost of living. This cannot be denied. At the moment the peso is about 3400 to the US dollar. That is up from 2400 to the dollar a year ago, and 2000 the year before that. Now it seems historically weak. Inflation has not kept up with the deflated value of the peso, so everything is a bargain for visitors. But right now the US dollar is at a high, and it will probably not stay that way. Cheap today, Medellin could become much more expensive at the turn of the US dollar. One has to be cautious about retiring based on current exchange rates.

Safety and Security

If you are planning to retire someplace, safety has to be a consideration. If you wish to stay safe in Medellin, here is an article with the precautions. The author provides an extensive list of risks and safety precautions, but this one was maybe the most significant for a potential expat retiree:

Don’t get too comfortable

Some neighborhoods in Medellín (El Poblado and Laureles, for example) are often touted as being the safest parts of the city.  This may be true in relative terms, but the truth is, bad things can happen anywhere. Plenty of robberies have been known to take place even in the “safest” of neighborhoods; it’s important to remember this and to exercise caution at all times.

 

Don’t get too comfortable, even in the relatively safest neighborhoods. This is not the life I am looking to live.

The most likely crime will be property crime, but muggings can result in physical injury, of course. Here is a report from numbeo.com about crime in Medellin:

Crime rates in Medellin, Colombia

Level of crime 72.62 High
Crime increasing in the past 3 years 54.55 Moderate
Worries home broken and things stolen 47.73 Moderate
Worries being mugged or robbed 73.86 High
Worries car stolen 59.09 Moderate
Worries things from car stolen 64.29 High
Worries attacked 43.18 Moderate
Worries being insulted 32.95 Low
Worries being subject to a physical attack because of your skin colour, ethnic origin or religion 15.91 Very Low
Problem people using or dealing drugs 80.68 Very High
Problem property crimes such as vandalism and theft 62.50 High
Problem violent crimes such as assault and armed robbery 67.05 High
Problem corruption and bribery 65.91 High

Safety in Medellin, Colombia

Safety walking alone during daylight 55.68 Moderate
Safety walking alone during night 28.41 Low

If you are planning to retire some place, you should start with the rest of your life in mind. You may be spry and strong at 70, but what about 80 or 90? The two safest places in Medellin, and the ones where expats retire, are Poblado and Laureles.

But those places are expensive. If you look at the cost of living in Medellin, of course it is averages. There is a lot of poverty there to bring the averages down. Which brings me back to the cost of retiring in Medellin. Not only is the peso likely to strengthen, but the neighborhoods where the expat retirees settle are more expensive.

I accept that between my expectations, and the scorching El Nino heat, I certainly have a subjective take on the city, but it is good to have other views when considering something so life altering as retiring some place. I’m going to try to make it back to Medellin maybe some months from now and give it a second try. For the moment, though, it is no longer on my list.

 

 

 

The Endless Beauty of Retirement Travel

I’ve traveled a bit in my life, but always with a set time frame. I have no grounds to complain, hell, sometimes I would have a 3 month break to wander SE Asia, or Mexico. But there was aa expiry date for my travels, and work to return to.

This year is different. I can stop at places as long as I like, and get on a bus to most anywhere. My only limitation is money. Yes, well, that isn’t a small limitation, for sure, but it only limits how I travel, not for how long. Buses and hostels, short term rentals, cooking for myself, mostly, and having photos and and the occasional trinket for souvenirs. I can do these things. I really must.

Such timeless horizons arrive a the point in my life when there is one very looming horizon. I find this coincidence curious. I know that there is a time when travel will end, I just don’t know when or how that will happen. So my travels are not aimless, or so timeless as I would like to imagine. I have a clear trajectory- arriving at a place where I want to plant my flag, or at least my bougainvilleas.

But for now I can get on a bus heading higher into the Andes and imagine that one of the small towns I land in will grab me by the ankles and keep me for a while. What remarkable opportunity. I am sincerely grateful to have my little pension, and so much time. Maybe in a year, who really knows, I will know where to settle and plant my kitchen garden, and teach the nietos and nietas a bit of English. I do have some plans for my peregrinations, after all.