Let’s talk about the expat lifeagain. While there are many positives to starting over in a new country, there are negatives as well. Two of them are dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs.
Wherever you go in the world, you will find dishonest salesmen. I’m sure you’ve experienced sharp sales pitches that leave out inconvenient details. And you’ve probably had salesmen lie to your face trying to get you to sign on the dotted line.
That stuff happens everywhere to everyone, but there are some twists to watch out for when you are an expat. Here are two I’ve seen:
Most foreigners come to Ecuador from a place that has a much higher cost of living. And many are downright ignorant. Both of the language (Spanish) and of what things actually cost around here. As a result, prices often shoot up when a “gringo” is buying or is even in a party of shoppers.
Whether it is a price in a local market, or the rent on an apartment, some people try to take advantage of foreigners. Here in Ecuador, it is called gringo pricing.
For example, my brother and I went to look at an apartment that had been listed in a local newspaper. The rent was something like $325 per month. But when us two foreign boys showed up at the door, the landlady insisted that the rent was $375 per month. She stuck with it, even when we told her we had seen the $325 advertised price.
Your best bet here is to wait outside while a trusted local friend shops for big-ticket items. Once they settle on a price, you can go inside and pay the bill.
Different Ways to Play the Game
Another thing to watch out for is that the tricks salesmen use can vary from place to place. When I lived in the USA, the price that was posted in a store was the price you paid. That is not always the case here. In most stores, prices are open to negotiation.
But you need to know how to play the game. My wife illustrated this brilliantly when we were buying a rice steamer of all things. I should have realized something was up when she got dressed up to go to the appliance store. We are not part of the local elite, but she can present herself as someone of importance when she wants to.
I didn’t wait outside the store but followed her around the store, trying to look imposing. I am about 6 inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than the typical local guy here in Cuenca.
She spotted the rice steamer that we wanted, but the price was something ridiculous like $109. She told the salesman that we wanted that rice cooker, but were not going to pay that price for it.
He countered by offering to let us finance it at some ridiculous interest rate.
She told him no, we were going to pay cash, but we would only buy it if he gave us his best price. She looked and acted like someone important, and I didn’t do anything to disabuse him of the notion.
He caved and gave us the rice steamer for $58.
Later, my wife explained that the high posted price was for regular people. It was also useful for making things too expensive for many local people to buy with cash. They would then have to use the store credit. As a result, they would end up paying several times what we did for the same item.
The rice steamer incident leads nicely into the topic of unexpected costs. But here, I am referring to different kinds of costs. Some things that are cheap in your home country will be expensive in another country and vice versa. This goes for services as well as goods.
Unexpected Costs of Services
In the last year, I’ve had to get a lot of documents notarized and mailed to one place or another. In the US, that is not a big deal. You go over to your local bank and get someone to notarize the document, then you throw it in the mailbox. Cheap, easy, and quick.
Notarizing documents is easy in the USA. Not so in Ecuador.
But getting things notarized here is harder. There are a limited number of notaries that you can use. The price for notarizing a document is low, if the stars align for you. Some documents first need to be translated into Spanish by an approved translator.
Other documents need to be apostilled (authenticated in some government office in your own country). Once apostilled, they need to be translated, then notarized.
It Gets Worse
Sometimes a local notary is not acceptable. For most of the documents I was dealing with, the notary had to be an official US notary. And the only allowed official US notaries in Ecuador are in the US Consulates.
For me, that means making an appointment with the Consulate days or weeks in advance. Then a 3 1/2 hour trip over the mountains, several hours at the Consulate, and a $50 fee for each notarization. All followed by the 3 1/2 ride back home.
Once the documents are properly notarized, I can’t simply toss them in a mailbox. It will usually take weeks for mail to get from here to the US, if it even arrives at all. So mailing a notarized document means a trip to the DHL office on the other side of town. Depending on the size of the document it costs around $60 in shipping fees.
Unexpected Costs of Goods
Aside from examples like my rice steamer, you may still find that certain things cost far more than you expect. Your favorite brand of pretzels may cost double what they do at home, since they now have to be imported.
Depending on your new country’s trade policies, other costs may be far higher than you expect. Ecuador has had large import tariffs on hundreds of products for years. Phones and computers are particular sore spots. The latest tech is often not available here at all. And when it is, the price will be at least double what you would pay in the US.
A popular tactic is to get someone coming in from the States to carry these kinds of items into the country for you. Many people travel to a country with more liberal trade policies once or twice a year. One goal of the trip is to stock up on stuff that is way too expensive here. I’ve heard that if you do it right, you can save enough money to more than cover the cost of the trip!
Wherever you go, there are negatives as well as positives. The key is to be aware of the negatives so you can at least try to avoid them.
Things in the USA look ever worse for anyone who wants a freer tomorrow. Charlottesville is just a taste of what’s to come. Things like dishonest salesmen and unexpected costs may mar the expat lifestyle. But they are small things compared to what’s happening up North. If you value your freedom, I urge you to consider getting out while you still can.
P.S. For a fascinating take on the current events in the USA, check out this post by Scott Adams.
In my last post, I said I would talk about a hormone problem I am having. Its name is, “Androgen Deficiency.” It affects many aging men, particularly those of us who grew up in the USA. It is seldom diagnosed. It makes your life suck. And there’s a good chance it will affect you too (if it isn’t already).
Something Was Not Right
I am 58 now. Several years ago, I realized that something was not right with my life. I was living the life I had worked for years to achieve. I had achieved all the personal goals I had set for myself years earlier.
I should have been on cloud nine. But everything was kind of gray and dreary. I had little drive or energy. Staying fit was becoming ever tougher. I was starting to look and feel old.
I thought maybe I was lost because I had achieved all my goals. To fix that, I went to Puerto Rico for three months to work for a startup. That helped a little, but not much.
I started doing some research and found that I was exhibiting all the symptoms of low testosterone. I asked my doctor if I could get tested for this, but he said no. He told me I was simply depressed and needed to get more exercise and sunshine. That helped a little, but I was still dragging.
As I read more, I learned that Testosterone levels are declining worldwide. The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Long-term studies conducted in the United States have shown that at any given age, each generation has a lower level of Testosterone than the previous one.
Given all of the above, the idea that I was suffering from low testosterone (androgen deficiency) sure seemed to fit the bill.
This Is Where You Come Into the Picture
If you are an aging male from the United States, there is a good chance that this story sounds familiar. If so, you should definitely talk to your doctor about getting your testosterone levels checked.
Low testosterone is an ever-more common problem, but it is seldom tested. There seems to be stigma against the entire concept of testosterone up there. While my whole adventure with this has taken place here in Ecuador, I’ve read reports of guys in the USA needing to go to several doctors before finding one who would even agree to test their testosterone levels. Even here, my primary care guy said no.
So if you are seeing the kinds of symptoms I’ve described, you should definitely talk to your doctor. But before you do, keep reading. There’s another wrinkle to this story.
Self-Medicating: Finding Supplements That Helped
My research and my doctor’s refusal to test led me to try self medicating. (The fact that I was too apathetic to argue with the doctor is in itself a good sign that my testosterone levels were low!)
I started looking into ways to boost my testosterone levels. I found a lot of hype and bullshit, along with a few things that can have a small positive effect. Then I found a supplement that really seemed to do the trick. I started taking this stuff and within days I felt better, looked buffer, had more energy, everything. I figured I had found the answer.
Then the FDA forced the product off the market. Damn!
After a while, I found a new supplement. This had much the same benefits as the stuff I was using, but worked via a different mechanism. Life was great again.
For a while.
I got great results from the minimum daily dosage of the supplement. But as the months went by, I found I needed more and more to get the same results. After about two years I was taking the maximum recommended dose but it seemed to have little effect. I thought it was a problem with long-term use of this supplement. But it seems something else was at work.
Blood Tests with Very Weird Results
About this time, my brother had started seeing a new doctor for an unrelated issue. Amongst other good things, he prescribed more thorough blood tests for both my brother and me. He included testosterone levels and a bunch of other stuff I never heard of. It was expensive but very enlightening.
First I saw that the testosterone-boosting supplement I was taking was doing its job. My level of Total Testosterone was off the charts. As in higher than was normal for a guy in his 20’s.
The next thing I noticed was that two related results were also sky-high. Both my Estradiol and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin (SHBG) levels were way too high.
I started researching and quickly learned that Estradiol is a component of the primary female sex hormone Estrogen. Very roughly, in guys, Estradiol counteracts the action of Testosterone. So my high Estradiol levels were working to counteract my high levels of Total Testosterone.
And SHBG is a protein that tightly binds to sex hormones (both Testosterone and Estrogen/Estradiol). As a result, SHBG renders Testosterone and Estradiol unavailable for your body to use.
This is important because the level of Free Testosterone in your body is what matters. Free Testosterone is the fraction of your Total Testosterone that isn’t bound to substances like SHBG. That means it is available for your body to use. Using some equations I found online, I calculated that my level of SHBG was sufficient to leave me with virtually no Free Testosterone despite my high levels of Total Testosterone.
Estradiol and SHBG levels both tend to climb quickly as men age. Now throw in the generally lower levels of testosterone production that guys from the United States suffer from. The result is a straight path to Androgen Deficiency in our 50’s and maybe even our 40’s.
More and more people are starting to recognize that low Testosterone levels can be a problem. But there is more to the story than simply driving your Testosterone levels to the moon. Too much Testosterone can cause problems in itself. There are healthy ranges for Testosterone, Estradiol, and SHBG that you want to hit. If all three are not in the right range, you end up with problems.
This is an important point for you to bear in mind before getting blood work done. Oftentimes, doctors will test only your Total Testosterone, and not Estradiol and SHBG.
Without all three results, you are left guessing. Is my Testosterone high enough? Is my Estradiol too high? How about my SHBG? Both of them? All three things screwed up? If you don’t have all the information, you can end up like me, manipulating the one variable you know about and hoping for the best.
Now What Do I Do?
Now that I have all the information, I know what I need to do. I need to somehow generate more Free Testosterone. My Total Testosterone is already sky-high, so trying to push it higher doesn’t seem like a good idea. That leaves me with trying to reduce Estradiol and SHBG.
There are lots of things you can do to try and lower these levels.
You can change your diet (broccoli helps reduce Estradiol and eating more carbs can lower your SHBG)
Exercise more (if you do the right kinds of exercises)
Use fewer plastic containers (which contain estrogen-like substances that can leech into your food or drinks)
I am only at the beginning of this process. But thanks to getting the comprehensive blood work, I at least know what I need to do. I’m already seeing results that show I am on the right track. Life gets better by the day.
A few days ago, I met with my endocrinologist. This was a follow-up meeting to review testing he ordered for me. The result of that meeting was that I am now taking something to reduce my level of Total Testosterone. After making changes to my diet and supplements, I have gotten my Estradiol and SHBG into the normal ranges. But the Testosterone is still too high. Too much Testosterone is generally less of a problem than too little, but it makes sense to get everything into the normal ranges. We’ll know more in a month.
If you are a middle-aged male, particularly if you grew up in the United States, Androgen Deficiency is a real risk. If you are feeling run down, low energy, getting fat, and just don’t give a damn, you are probably already experiencing this wonderful syndrome.
Talk to your doctor. Get your testosterone levels tested. And make sure the doc ticks the boxes for Estradiol and SHBG too. What you learn could really change your life.
Even when you plan ahead and travel right, weird stuff can happen. For example…
Republic of Malta, August 18, 2007 (FT)
“We will keep the girl as ‘collateral’,” he said, “hurry back with our money.” If I couldn’t come up with enough cash soon, it was unclear what would happen to ‘the girl’ who just so happened to be my daughter. Worse, this wasn’t the kind of situation the police could help me with. I started running toward town. I needed to find lots of cash, fast.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I am convinced that if you want to be freer tomorrow, you need to do some traveling. I also believe there are ways to travel right, ways that make the experience more beneficial. That doesn’t mean crazy shit won’t happen to you on your adventures. It will. But if you travel right, and keep your wits about you, things that could be disasters will turn out to be great adventures.
Let’s get to it.
#1 Pack Light to Travel Right
To get the most out of your travels, you need to try to experience your destination. That’s hard to do when you have several huge suitcases full of stuff with you. When you bring everything you own along on your one-week trip to your exotic destination, you are building a cocoon around yourself.
For sure it’s more comfortable to have everything you could possibly need right there at your fingertips. But you pay a heavy price for this. The drawbacks include:
Hauling several large suitcases around with you is an expensive, time-consuming struggle. You will have to pay excess baggage fees to the airlines. And you will probably need someone to help you handle your bags.
When you bring lots of stuff with you, you will find yourself thinking about it. Having all that junk along with you is a distraction. Which suitcase contains my favorite slippers? How am I going to transport all this to my next destination?
You make yourself a target. This might be unfair, but when I see people with a massive pile of luggage at an airport, or trying to stuff it into a taxi, or checking into some hotel, I immediately think one thing, “clueless tourist.” You can bet that any local pickpocket or thief is thinking the same.
This might be unfair too, but the same mindset that leads to traveling with 4 big suitcases also leads to staying at big international hotel chains that cater to travelers with lots of money (and luggage). And those places are pretty much all the same, regardless of where you are in the world. That’s part of their attraction, the same experience wherever you are. But if that is what you want, there’s no point in going anywhere interesting. Just pick the hotel nearest your house and spend a few days there.
You isolate yourself. A big part of traveling right is interacting with the people at our destination. When you bring everything you could possibly need along with you, it reduces the chance that you will interact with anyone other than travel industry workers. You will benefit more from one trip to the store to buy something you didn’t bring, than you will from a week’s worth of interactions with the staff of some international chain hotel.
The solution to these problems is simple: pack light.
How to Pack Light
Packing light is simple, but not necessarily easy. Assuming you are going someplace warm, all you need to do is limit yourself to what you can carry onto the airplane. That typically means one carry-on bag and a backpack or laptop bag. As long as you have some way to wash clothes, you can do just fine with this much luggage on a multi-week trip.
One Carry-On! That’s Crazy!
If you’ve never traveled this light before, it might sound crazy, but it isn’t. Think about it. You will be wearing one set of clothes while you travel. Add another pair of pants (maybe some shorts and a swimsuit). Several sets of underwear. Several shirts that match the pants. A change of shoes. A hat, a Kindle or other ebook reader. Any special meds you might need. Throw your computer or tablet and associated cables and chargers into the other bag.
Or check out this video where a pilot shows how he gets everything he needs for week+ trips into one carry-on bag:
That’s it. What else do you really need? Toiletries? Maybe, but remember that liquids are a hassle to travel with. I usually just bring a toothbrush and toothpaste.
Does this mean that I’m always smelly and have dirty hair when I travel? Of course not. Unless you are going someplace really far off the beaten path, I can guarantee that you will be able to find things like deodorant and shampoo at your destination.
Remember what I said about the benefits of interacting with regular locals rather than tourism industry workers? The need to buy shampoo or something similar as soon as you arrive forces you to start interacting immediately.
What if I Forget Something Really Important?
What if you forget something that’s really important? That depends on what it is. Is this important thing something that you can replace quickly and easily at your destination? No problem. Follow Tim Ferriss’s strategy of setting aside a couple hundred dollars for emergency purchases.
Most of the time, if something is really important enough to worry about, you won’t forget it. But if you do, you will have the cash on hand to replace it. This frees you from the impulse to take everything you own in case you might need it.
What if the important thing is something you can’t easily replace at your destination? The first option is to do without it. Those of us who grew up in the USA or Europe are often spoiled. We get so used to having everything that our perspective gets skewed. Our ideas about what things are really important tend to be exaggerated.
Forgot your Kindle with that novel that you’ve been dying to read loaded onto it? Is the world really going to end if you don’t read the damn book this week? Deal with it. Maybe you can spend the time interacting with local people instead.
I once read a blog post about a couple that decided they couldn’t stay in Ecuador because they couldn’t live without some of the things they were accustomed to from back home. I don’t remember her issue (it may have been the thread count of locally-made sheets), but his was that he couldn’t find his favorite brand of pretzel in the local supermarket. The trauma was so great that he had to return to the USA. If this attitude makes sense to you, I suggest that you are reading the wrong blog. There must be something on TV you can watch instead.
Think hard before declaring a crisis over the whatever-it-is that you forgot to bring.
The Thing Truly is Important and Hard to Replace
If the thing you forgot is truly important, and difficult or impossible to replace at your destination, your best bet may be to get someone to ship you a replacement from back home. This will probably be hugely expensive. And in many cases, the thing might not arrive until after you return home!
The other option is to talk to your home country’s consulate or embassy. When all else fails, they may be able to save the day for you.
Republic of Malta, August 18, 2007 (FT)
My bank in the USA had inexplicably put a hold on my credit card, leaving me unable to pay the tab for a week at one of Malta’s best hotels. With my daughter being held by the hotel manager as collateral, I ran toward the heart of Valletta, the Maltese capital. It was the weekend, so going to a bank and asking what to do was out. I did have a backup cash card, so that was a plus.
The trick was finding ATMs in a strange city, with very little time to search. Worse, I needed ATMs that would work with one of the networks my cash card supported. I had to find machines from two different banks because the outstanding balance of the bill was greater than the daily withdrawal limit from each bank.
Try searching out an ATM around here!
Fortunately, since most Maltese speak some English, I was able to ask people for directions. And by hitting different banks and pulling the maximum from each, I was able to get enough cash.
Drenched in sweat (the Mediterranean sun is really hot in August), I dashed back to the hotel. After trading the manager cash for my kid and our luggage, we sprinted to get a taxi, then ran through the airport, barely making our flight to Rome. I was very happy that my daughter and I had decided to travel right by packing light. We would never have made it if we had checked bags to deal with.
What would I have done if I didn’t have a backup card or couldn’t get enough cash to pay the hotel? I would have been reduced to contacting the US Consulate in Malta for help. We would have missed our flight, and I would have felt like an idiot, but the folks at the Consulate would have made sure my daughter was liberated and got us home somehow.
Lessons So Far
So what did we learn on this adventure?
Travel Light. It helps you interact with the locals more, gets you out of the hotel, and makes it easier to get around quickly when you have to.
Have Multiple Ways to Get Money. Even when credit card companies know that you are traveling in a certain region, they sometimes freeze your card for no apparent reason. Having multiple cards, ideally from different banks, increases the odds that you will be able to get money when you need it.
Ask for Help. As awkward as it may be, asking a stranger for help is sometimes your best possible move.
Know How to Contact Your Consulate or Embassy. When it all hits the fan, these are the folks who can bail you out.
But Wait! There’s More!
Rome, Italy, August 18, 2007 (FT)
So we made our flight to Rome, the first leg of our journey back home. But the catastrophes did not end when we went wheels up over Malta. We landed in Rome on time, and hustled to make our connection. When we arrived at the gate, we were told that we were too late and would not be allowed to board our flight.
What the heck?
We hurried over to the Alitalia ticket counter, where the attendant looked into our problem. He told us that the online service I used to book the trip should never have allowed that combination of flights as it was physically impossible to make the connection. We were pretty upset, but my daughter and I both kept our cool instead of taking out our frustrations on the poor guy from Alitalia.
After hearing our story about what had happened to us so far that day, he rebooked us for the next morning. Having pity on us, he even waived the $200 per person flight change fee that I would otherwise have needed to pay for the new connections. This was a real life-saver since my credit card was still frozen.
Pushing My Luck
So here we were, trapped in Rome, with a new flight booked for the next day. The attendant directed us to a hotel that was accessible from the airport terminal so we could get a room for the night. I booked the room using my backup debit card.
There was only one problem: after paying the hotel in Malta, there wasn’t enough cash left on my debit card to pay the bill the next morning!
We didn’t even have enough physical euros to make up the difference. But we did have enough cash left on the card to buy 15 minutes of Internet time (free WiFi wasn’t a thing back then). After my daughter and I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what I should say, I quickly logged on and wrote an email to my bank. I told them what had happened, where we were right then, and begged them to unblock my card so we could come home.
As you can imagine, neither of us slept much that night.
Rome, Italy, August 19, 2007 (FT)
Once morning came around, we waited until the last possible minute to check out, hoping for a miracle.
Finally, we went downstairs to the front desk. I handed the cashier my credit card, and both of us crossed our fingers behind our backs.
The charge went through without problems. Someone from my bank had seen my email and unblocked my card in time. We hauled it out of there and headed back into the terminal to make our flight. Once again, not having to check luggage bought us some crucial time.
Will We Ever Get Home?
Making it through Customs and all that was no problem. But once we reached the waiting area for the flight we realized that it had been quite a few hours (like 18 or 20) since we had anything to eat. There were no shops in the area where we were waiting to board the plane, just a cruddy-looking vending machine. Which only accepted euro coins.
All we had left was my daughter’s handful of souvenir coins. She sacrificed her souvenirs so we could share a croissant and an orange juice to keep us going.
From here on out there were no more troubles. We were a little nervous about whether my credit card would still work when we picked up the car at Logan Airport in Boston. But we made it home without further issues. A day late, very tired and hungry, but home.
What Did We Learn This Time?
We learned several more lessons during this part of the adventure:
Make Sure Your Reservations Make Sense. I should have been smarter. I should have looked more closely at my connections and realized that there was no way we could disembark, cross the airport, and get through the boarding process in time.
Problems Tend to Cascade. Missing our flight could have resulted in hundreds of dollars in charges, as well as disrupting every following leg of the trip. I had enough money available through my backup debit card to handle one big expense, but not a string of them. Instead of assuming that at most one thing will go wrong, think through the chain of events to see all the possibilities.
Have a Way to Contact People Back Home. If you have a way to contact the people back home, you may be able to resolve otherwise ugly situations. Being able to contact your bank, or get your cousin Joe to wire you some money right away, could make a huge difference.
Ask For Help. Just as us guys hate to ask for directions when driving, we hate to ask for help. Fortunately in this case, I was desperate enough to ask for help from the airline attendant as well as my bank. Both of them came through for me and prevented a mess from turning into a really big mess.
Most People Are Good. Taking the “ask for help” theme one step further, in this and other travel adventures I have learned that most people are good. Most people you meet are willing to help someone in need, or at least point you toward someone who can help. Even the guy who held my daughter for collateral at the hotel in Malta wasn’t really sinister. He was simply trying to find a way to get what I owed him (paid for a week in their hotel) with the least problems possible. He could have just called the cops when my card wouldn’t work, instead of letting me try to scare up the money.
Travel is good for you in many ways, but don’t expect it to be without complications. At the same time, don’t blow those complications out of proportion. After all, it is very rare (at home or on the road) that a problem will truly be life-threatening or insoluble.
In fact, the very act of overcoming the inevitable problems will change you for the better. As stressful as the end of our Malta trip was, a lot of good came from it. I learned some new things to do to make travel easier in the future, while gaining confidence in my own ability to deal with unexpected trouble.
Also, I learned that my daughter was able to deal with big problems without losing it. I became more confident in her ability to navigate life watching her deal with issues without the kinds of tantrums or crying fits that many young women would have thrown.
To wrap up this meandering post, I’ve summarized most of the important points below. Here are the things to do if you want to travel right:
Travel Light – Go with only stuff you can carry onto the airplane
Interact With People – You’ll get more out of one trip to a store locals use than out of a week of guided tours
Set Aside Cash – That way you can replace anything important that you forget
Have Far More Cash Available Than You Think You Will Need – In most situations, cash will go far to get you out of trouble.
Notify Your Bank – Let your banks and credit card issuers know when and where you are going. This does not guarantee that your cards will keep working, but it improves your odds.
Have Multiple Cards – Multiple cards from multiple banks keep you from getting stranded.
Check Your Reservations – Make sure your travel plans make sense, even if they were generated by a computer.
Control Your Emotions – In most cases, losing your temper or breaking down emotionally will just make things worse. Save the screaming, crying, or vomiting for after the crisis is resolved.
Have Faith In Yourself And Your Travel Companions – People tend to underestimate their ability to deal with the unexpected. If you get into trouble, don’t panic.
Do you have your own travel horror stories to share? Post your best one in the comments below. The more we share what happened to us, the better prepared others will be when they hit the road.