05/02/2014 04:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's Enough in the Land of Everything?

We had the pleasure of doing a radio interview last week with a financial journalist about our new book on retiring overseas on a budget. We exchanged emails afterward, and he was kind enough to offer to do a future interview "from the next exotic location."

We wrote back that, after more than a dozen years living abroad, the U.S. seems pretty exotic to us now. And we weren't kidding.

At the moment of this writing, we're sitting at home doing all the normal things of our lives... typing, making tea, checking email, doing laundry, thinking about what to have for dinner.


Photo by Hugo Ghiara,

And we're doing it all in what to us is now our normal surroundings... a small farming and leather-craft village in a vast, green, eucalyptus-covered river valley between two towering extinct volcanoes almost directly on the earth's equator.

We can hear the roosters crowing in the neighbor's back yard and the endlessly repeating Spanish jingle played by the village garbage truck making its rounds. Out our kitchen window we can see the clouds scudding over the summit of nearby Volcan Imbabura in the distance and, below, a half dozen black and white cows lazily grazing their way through the empty lot across the street. We can hear our neighbors down in the courtyard picking through a huge gunnysack full of the weekly avocado harvest the maintenance men collect from the trees in the garden. From somewhere in the valley, we can hear the distinctive wood block tock-tock-tock dance music of a local wedding party... it's been going on for two days now.

And for the past few years this has all been normal and decidedly non-exotic for us.

Like most expats we know, we occasionally have those moments when we suddenly look up, startled, ambushed by the novelty of our surroundings, and realize exactly where we are and what we're seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and doing. And we wonder, "How did we get here?!"

But those moments quickly melt into the normal, everyday business of dickering with a fruit vendor, or examining fresh chickens, or trying to figure out which holiday the passing procession is celebrating and which imagen (life-sized carved statue of a saint) they're carrying to the main church that oversees the town plaza.

What strikes us as truly exotic these days is what we find when we go back to the States for holidays and special occasions. Like strangers in a strange land, we wander entire neighborhoods with huge, manicured lawns and wide, evenly paved streets without a single person on them... only cars rushing by. Entire villages could survive on the vegetables that could be grown on one of those lawns. We wander vast supermarket isles completely overwhelmed by choice. How can there be 20 kinds of black olives? Who can choose between 40 brands of breakfast cereal? Half a city block of different canned and dried soups!

How to explain a place where you can buy anything you imagine, any time, from anywhere, with just a phone call or the click of a mouse button? What does a place like that do to you and to your sense of what you really need to be happy?

What's enough in the land of everything?

If we stay in the States long enough, it doesn't take us long to remember our consumer selves... the modern, First World selves that drive the engine of commerce with a bottomless desire for stuff and a relentless craving for endless choices of that stuff. To be satisfied in a place like that is almost unpatriotic.

And that's what we find really exotic now. For the past 13 years we've lived in places where happiness and satisfaction are measured less by what you own than by who you are and what you do. It has to be that way, of course... there simply isn't that much stuff to choose from or be distracted by. Beyond clean air, fresh water, and basic, wholesome food, the consumer choices are more limited than in the States. This drives some people crazy, but we've grown to enjoy it.

In fact, we enjoy this life a lot. It doesn't seem exotic to us any more... it seems normal. Calmly and refreshingly and relaxingly normal.

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