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.

 

 

Vilcabamba Ecuador, after a long break

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So I haven´t written anything here all month. Peru and the death of my computer are my excuses. But now I want to go back and catch up. I’m currently in another small town that is quite tempting to a lot of retirees, dropouts, new age practitioners, ayahuasca and San Pedro enthusiasts, fake and real shaman, and snake oil sales people. In other words, the southern Peruvian version of Vilcabamba. So it put me to mind to get to work on my blog.

Vilcabamba has a reputation. It is also a bit of a mystery to me. The reputation is as a valley of longevity where you can retire on thin air and live forever. It also has a reputation as a place to take “plant medicines” aka ayahuasca and San Pedro. Hence its attraction to the above list of motley characters. The mystery is how this place has developed in a little rather hard to get to valley in the south of Ecuador on a barely used/usable stretch of road that leads to the least used jungle border crossing to Peru. To the north by an hour or so is the town of Loja, but that is far from an outpost of urbanity. If you are looking for a city, it is a 4.5 hour flight to Quito. It is in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

So, I had a rather jaundiced view before my arrival. I had read the stories of drugs, hippies and violence.    I had also read all the glowing reports from International Living Magazine, a publication dedicated to convincing retirees or future retirees that they can live an idyllic life on next to nothing in one of their selected locations, for all of which they just happen to offer seminars and webinars for a small fee, so you can learn how this prestidigitation is performed. Yes, I know snake oil when I smell it.

This wariness was reinforced when I got on the bus from Loja to Vilcabamba and sat down next the an escapee from Alaska. Now I have spent years in Alaska and I know that when they emptied out the mental health hospitals in the lower 48 in the 70´s and 80´s, a good percentage of the former residents headed for Alaska. This kind lady made her second escape to Ecuador. She checked all of the boxes for what I had come to expect from some of the residents of Vilcabamba; spaced out, check, paranoid, check, conspiracy theorist, check, spiritually committed, check and double check (Seventh Day Adventist), broke, check, delusional. . .well, you get the idea. So upon my arrival I already might as well have continued on the Peru.

So I surprised myself and actually fell deeply in like with the place. The local church certainly was painted by some cosmically inspired group. The people I met on the sunny town square were not the cashed up one I´d heard about, and maybe they had their ¨plant medicine¨ moments, but mostly they were friendly down to earth exiles from gringolandia.

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I have written a lot about Cuenca, but the bottom line for me was a lack of feeling connected. Cuenca seems to roll up the sidewalks at night and everyone escapes to their own little, mostly family, enclave. Certainly the glorious town square in Cuenca lacks the social vibe that to me defines town squares. It was quite the opposite in Vilcabamba. Choose a bar or restaurant, order a beer and you will be chatted up in a matter of minutes, and deep in conversation before you know it.

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I really liked that one of the first conversations I overheard was a deeply cynical and very humourous take on the local new age pretenders. Complete with pantomimes of yoga positions. There are at least some here who have a sense of irony and humour about themselves and the place they live. I had conversations with people living on less Social Security than I get, and feeling at peace and at home here.

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During the day young hippie types, probably on the ayahuasca trail, sell the same trinkets you find at every beach or vacation town – beaded bracelets, hand made thises and thatses, and some fake stuff from China. A dreadlocked poser juggles, 2 more have a clown act, and a young gringa in a long skirt nurses a baby, beneath a sky inspired by plant medicine.

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DSC01514There seem to be (invisible) hitching posts actually in use, and lots of antique 4 wheelers. Ducks are steered through the dusty streets lined with small stores and living spaces.

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Okay, a confession, I was actually quite taken with the quality of the food here at very good value. I think I was hungry a lot of the time in Cuenca for good food. I know, many would argue with that assessment, but I was there for 2 months, and on my budget I never had a great meal. I had three really good meals (and one really mediocre one) all on the small town square. Fried potatoes and an omelet with salsa and good coffee. Now that is a breakfast.

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So, could I live in Vilcabamba? I´m not sure. It is a bit far from urban escape, and it really is a small dusty town. But it is reasonably cheap, in Ecuador, which has great benefits for retirees, and it is close to Peru, which I am growing to love, and close to the Amazon, which I quite love. Spanglish seems to be the common language, and there are people that I can relate to. It might make it to my short list. DSC01540 (2)

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International Retirement Migration

I just finished listening to an NPR (National Public Radio in the US) report on retirees in Cotacachi, a rural town in northern Ecuador. (http://latinousa.org/2015/10/09/rural-ecuador-americas-new-retirement-spot/) The report talks about the arrival of American expats to this small Ecuadorian town which has a very low cost of living, great views and an easy way of life. It also talks about one of the great engines of expat ingress to Ecuador, International Living, an online magazine which markets all sorts of services to expats, such as real estate, attorneys, local experts, etc., as well as its own premium services, seminars and webinars. To read International Living is to be convinced that fairy tales come true, even at $1000-1300 a month.

International Living is the top hit every time on Google when looking up retirement abroad, and they are the go to bad boys of unreasonable expectations. The report on NPR mentions them several times, for good reason. But they have tapped into a market, they didn’t create it whole cloth. They have probably single handedly  doubled the number of American expats in Ecuador, but if you think about it, it takes a lot to convince a person to leave their home country and their lives and move to a strange country where they speak a different language.

Why We Leave

Why would people want to leave their homes and families and everything that is familiar to them, to go to a new country, any new country? 

The main reason for the current retiree diaspora is financial. Most of us older people are now, or soon will be, living on fixed incomes that are no match for the US cost of living. We live in the richest country on earth, but we can’t afford it. It is that simple. When you take into account what is required in the US: housing, food and clothing, medical care, transportation and other basic needs, there just isn’t enough in the pension. According to a 2006 Princeton University Working Paper by Thomas Methvin, “As the Migration Policy Institute attests, “The skyrocketing cost of medical and nursing care paired with increasing life expectancies have led to growing doubts that Medicare, Social Security, and private retirement plans will be sufficient for a decent retirement living for all but the most fortunate of retirees” (Migration Policy Institute 2006).

The second reason is lifestyle. This is in large part related to finances. If you can paste together an existence in the US on your pension, it will be a rather spartan one-maybe one your puritan ancestors would approve of? Probably in the US, if you are on an average SS retirement, you will continue to work to supplement your pension. From the same study mentioned above:

“Migrants leave, even from the so-called “core” [developed nations], because they are embedded with lifestyle expectations that they cannot fulfill given their present living conditions, much like those who may leave the periphery [developing nations]. This happens for example when retired migrants living in the “core” make a calculated association between differentials in the cost-of-living in so-called “periphery” regions, causing them to seek locations that allow them to stretch their resources and attain (or come closer to) such a lifestyle.”

So, let me explain that a bit. In one dominant explanation of immigration, it is argued that people migrate to the developed nations (the “core”) because of the penetration of advanced consumer lifestyle ideas and desires into the developing nations (periphery) and people migrate in search of the better life they believe they can have, or at least give their children, in the most modern nations. In other words, they are driven by the desire for a consumer lifestyle. I think it is fairly clear that this is often the case (with many economic migrants, but of course not the case with refugees).

When it comes to the migration of retirees from the developed nations to developing nations, it is ironically the same operation in reverse. We in the rich countries all grow up with consumer desires mostly driven by media. We want a good, comfortable life-style and actually feel quite entitled to it. Many retirees feel cheated when they realize they can’t play golf and lay about at the beach in their retirement. We want our own homes and to be independent. Moving in with the grown children and watching the grand-babies is neither desirable nor an option. So just as the migrants from the developing nation are seeking a good life-style, so are the retirement migrants moving to the developing nations.

A reason quite related to the above is disenchantment with the American way of life. I have found that a lot of retirees I’ve met abroad, or whose blog articles I’ve read, feel alienated by contemporary American culture and society. This critique comes from the right and the left, as if you could divide the expat retirees along the lines of Sanders and Trump. There is a general malaise, even if it is interpreted differently. Again, it would seem that those migrating out of developed countries are driven by similar forces as those who are immigrating into them- the American (or western, or developed) way of life.

The promises of the life of leisure in the perfect climate with all the amenities obviously overstates the possibilities. Just as the immigrant who arrives in Europe or North America experience some painful realities, so do the expat retirees. But we are driven by similar, and somewhat eternal forces. Humans are migrants. Why this is still a mystery and a controversy defies logic.  Now is a new era of migration, and retirees are now being recognized as being part of the new diaspora.

 

 

 

 

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

Eating in Medellin

No, not in fancy restaurants, or corner greasy spoons, but in the kitchen in the hostel where I am staying. I bought some groceries to get me through till Friday mid-day, two days from now, when I’ll be moving on.

I normally like to frequent the wet markets, open air markets, or, I just learned, mercados campesinos, when I’m staying some place. It really helps the producers, the food is better, and the prices are cheaper. But where I am staying is far from the nearest market, so the supermercado had to do.

I took a little cart, as I am inclined to fill my cart as if the apocalypse is imminent, and started tossing things in. I looked at what I had accumulated and realized I was at it again. I switched some things in and out, found the good beer, and checked out with plenty of food left for the fellow travelers staying behind.

I got:

1/2  kilo extra lean ground beef, Pasta, Sauce

Fresh red beans (which are cooking as I write)

Beets, limes, avocados, 1 large mango, bananas, onion

6 fresh free-range country eggs

3 “artisanal” locally brewed IPA ales

The total was the equivalent of $13 dollars, U.S., including those chi-chi beers and the premium beef. There will definitely be left overs for the fellow travelers (though I doubt it will be any of the beer).

One of the keys to traveling and living on a fixed budget is to feed yourself as much as possible. You will eat better and save a ton of money. I had to eat out last night and I had a truly mediocre meal for more than half of what I spent for the next two day at the grocers.

 

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.