The Honesty Box

“Be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely that what others think of you. The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”  – Coach John Wooden

Is your character worth a penny?

Lake County has been the poorest of Tennessee’s ninety-five counties for a long time. It’s mostly two small towns with thousands of acres of the world’s richest farm land. This Mississippi River twists and turns through its heart, and the land is so flat you can see forever. There aren’t more than eight or ten families who farm all that land now, so the jobs aren’t all that plentiful.

“You don’t just put any yahoo to operating a half-million dollar cotton picker,” as one local resident recently noted.

Jimmy Lee Tucker remembers the late 1950s when his father worked as a commercial fisherman on Reelfoot Lake.  “If he had a good week, I got 25 cents on Saturday,” he said. “If it was a bad week I got nothing. The 25 cents would get you a Coke, a big Baby Ruth and enough bubble gum to last for the week.”

But Tucker, now a census worker for the government, remembers an abrupt change that came to his weekend routine one day.

“The Cokes went from a nickel to six cents. You put your nickel in the slot like always, and they attached a tin box to the outside where you placed the extra penny. They called it the honesty box. Paying six cents for a Coke was a big deal.

“Hardly any of the kids did it, and so it wasn’t a year later before they just upped the price from six cents to a dime. That showed us.”


When I was younger it didn’t bother me so much taking a pen from the bank or just accepting the extra french fries when the order got mixed up. And I must have left a hundred shopping carts right there in the parking lot.

That conscience, though.

The older we grow, I think, the more self-aware we are of that person we see in the mirror. I’ve realized that among all things, I have to live with that guy, and I don’t want him feeling guilty about some small, silly thing.

Dana and I once spent a five-month stretch in Ecuador not knowing if we’d ever return to the US. It was on the back side of a tough time, emotionally, economically, and lots of other ways. The thing I realized most from that adventure is that wherever you go, you take yourself with you. There’s really no hiding from yourself.

Everybody has an honesty box.


COMING FRIDAY: Dates for the 2021 Tranquility Base Writers Retreats

The King’s English



You’ll find a bonus story here and there through The King of Highbanks Road manuscript. One such bonus is a list of my dad’s favorite sayings. Several are toned down in color. Ha.

Are any of these tossed about in your family?

•She’s as nervous as a sinner in church. (as nervous as it gets)

•Never get in a fight with a pig in the mud. You get dirty, and the pig loves it. (some things just aren’t worth it.)

•He’s choppin’ in tall cotton. (acknowledging a nice accomplishment)

•Don’t know about you, but I’m wore plum out. (more than just tired – very tired)

•How’s your mom and them? (greeting between families close in friendship)

•You beat all I’ve ever seen. (hard to believe)

•Colder than a well digger’s @$#. (very cold)

•He’s gettin’ way too big for his britches. (braggart)

•Slow as molasses in winter. (usually reserved to describe an adolescent male)

•I’m full as a tick. (what you say after every meal in the South)

•Look to the West. It’s comin’ up a storm. (rain and wind will be here in twenty minutes)

•I’ll swan. (my, oh, my)

•Yes, sir, that (rain) was a toad strangler. (rain that leaves water standing in row middles)

•Tight as a banjo string. (a cheap old man, or a nut on a bolt that won’t budge)

•I swear to my time. (personal exasperation, disbelief)

•He doesn’t know his @$# from a hole in the ground. (downright dumb)

•He’s cruisin’ for a bruisin’. (luck is about to run out)

Mid-South Food Truck Festival

Named 2016 Food Truck Festival Queen.

Named 2016 Food Truck Festival Queen.

So True.

So True.

Twisted Sandwich ... ummmmm...

Twisted Sandwich … ummmmm…


Fish out of a food truck. Not really my thing.

Fish out of a food truck. Not really my thing, but I’m sure it’s Heavenly.

Grammar Nazis need not attend the Food Truck Festival.

Grammar Nazis need not attend the Food Truck Festival.

Food truck salad.

Food truck salad.


Representing Little Rock.

Representing Little Rock.

Nice guy. I was going to take a photo out front, but he insisted I come back where the action was happening.

Nice guy. I was going to take a photo out front, but he insisted I come back where the action was happening.

These ladies from Joy Ride Latin eats serve up an award-winning Cubano. The cheese was perfectly melted.

These ladies from Joy Ride Latin Eats serve up an award-winning Cubano. The cheese was perfectly melted.


I regret not trying the grilled mac and cheese sandwich. I really do.

I regret not trying the grilled mac and cheese sandwich. I really do.


Also risky business.

Again – we’re talking risky business. Credit for not putting an apostrophe on necks.

One of the classiest of the bunch.

One of the classiest of the bunch. Bon appetit.




40 Beds in 40 Nights … or … Know Your MATL

“I may look calm, but in my head I’ve killed you three times.” ~ unknown philosopher


One of my favorite municipal allergies in Castrojeriz. It was just lovely.

One of my favorite municipal albergues in Castrojeriz. It was just lovely.

The hiking/walking/pilgrim community is a fairly tight-knit group bound together by some strange anomaly that’s hard to put into words. We are diverse and rebellious, yet kindred creatures of habit. Misfits, yet soul-searching sojourners. Focused, yet consumed with all possibilities. The World is our home.

With our diversity comes a fairly common maxim among hikers on the world’s great trails, and it’s quite simple. “Hike your own hike.” The Camino de Santiago version of the adage is, “It’s your Camino.” The translation is synonymous. There just is no right or wrong way to walk across a country. By and large, you’re at the helm of your own destiny. You’re free to do it your way.

Indeed, there are traditionalists who conform to certain standards and will even argue the nature of the “true pilgrim.” The thinking is that pilgrims carry the bare minimum of necessities, disconnect from the world at-large and stay in modest accommodations along the way. I met Camino pilgrims who had so little money, they didn’t know where they’d get their next meal. There were others who shipped their packs ahead via courier, reserved nice accommodations by phone, and dined daily on northern Spain’s finest cuisine. Neither way is more or less genuine. It’s your camino.

I fell somewhere in between all that, but had to learn it as I went.


At home, I’m generally a creature of habit when it comes to day-to-day things. I like a steady daily routine blended with big, unpredictable adventure a few times a year.

Less than luxurious accommodations in Tosantos. But I still loved the place.

Less than luxurious accommodations in Tosantos. But I still loved the place.

But the reality of pilgrimage is that whether it’s five-star accommodations or the simplest, unheated room with a floor mat, you’ll sleep in a different bed every night. You’ll eat differently, have different bunk mates, and the greatest challenge of all may be finding the bathroom in the middle of the night. It’s never where it was the night before. I walked through the darkness into walls more than once.

It’s debatable how much of a “true pilgrim” I really was on the Way, but I gravitated toward the most traditional experience I could enjoy. Among my highest priorities was experiencing life with others and making pilgrim companions from around the world. That was a success by whatever standard.

The best way to experience life with others on the Camino is to take up nightly residence in the municipal albergues. It’s cheap, communal, and requires most of us to go above and beyond our general understanding of order and solitude.

Open, dormitory-style living with rows of bunk beds is a common configuration in the albergues. At the most primitive level, this means you hear one another’s noises, smell one another’s smells, and tolerate every other idiosyncrasy that aggravates you. It’s a radical shift from the prim and proper lifestyle to which most of us are accustomed.

Some of my very best moments were those experienced in the albergues after a long day’s walk. There were random reunions with good friends, shared evening meals I’ll never forget, and a German pilgrim and I once found 20 euros on the floor no one would claim, so we bought wine for the house that night. It was a heck of a party. The treasured albergue stories are almost endless.

At the same time, I found myself becoming a little edgy every so often and didn’t really understand why until a long-distance phone call with my wife one day when she asked from nowhere about some things I missed most from home. It came out of my mouth before I could even think.

Doors,” I said, without the slightest hesitation. Every so often I found myself really wanting that privacy that comes with a closed door.

(Above, a completely random, unscripted moment, that was one of my favorite interviews on the Way. I swear we didn’t script this.)

Whether you do so consciously or not, on the Camino de Santiago you’ll develop a certain tolerance level for the absence of privacy. For me it was a standard of measure I called my Municipal Albergue Tolerance Level (MATL). Mine was an eight or a nine. I could go almost 10 consecutive days with dormitory-style living before the need for privacy set in and required a room with a door and a private bath.

I thought it was a pretty good number, but Vegan Tom didn’t think so. After a night in the Santo Domingo Parador, and another night or two in a fairly modest hostel, he assigned me the trail name, High Roller. It was his insinuation of my inauthenticity as a “true pilgrim.”

It stuck, and however cynical it was, I actually loved the name.


Pamplona – Camino Magic

(Above: Heinrich’s reading the Pilgrim’s blessing before leaving Pamplona. It was one of the most special moments I experienced on Camino.)



Casa Paderborn in Pamplona

Casa Paderborn in Pamplona

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” ~ J.K. Rowling

“The deepest of level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless … beyond speech … beyond concept.” ~ Thomas Merton


(Blogger’s Note: This is an excerpt from my manuscript, #PilgrimStrong).

In all the research and pre-reading before leaving Arkansas for Spain, there were a couple of phrases that always sort of bothered me.

“Camino Magic” and “…the Camino provides” are the legendary pilgrim ideas about how something special can, and often does, happen on pilgrimage. The general idea is that if you find yourself truly in need of something along the Way, that very thing will likely find its way to you. Letting go of control is a rite of pilgrim passage.

I’m a no-nonsense journalist, realist, and one who many would say has a narrow view of “religion.” I don’t think it’s true, but in a progressive world I understand why many would believe it. The notion of a place having some sacred, mystical, magical power just didn’t fly with my belief system.

That is, until I met Heinrich.


Bridge over the Arga River entering Pamplona

Bridge over the Arga River entering Pamplona

If you’re walking the Camino Frances, your feet will let you know by Pamplona if they plan to give you trouble, especially with blisters. I was just a few hours short of the great city that hosts the annual running of the bulls when my feet let me know just that. Approaching a small picnic area on the outskirts of Zabaldica I decided to stop and pull my shoes off, afraid of what my eyes would see. And I was even more concerned about what it would mean in the immediate days ahead. Just as I’d feared, there were now full-blown blisters on, not one, but both feet.

I’d trained fairly rigorously in the flatlands near my home. I think it’s the combination of friction from ascending and descending elevations, and the reality of double-digit miles day after day that surprises many pilgrims with blisters they thought they’d pre-prevented. The picnic table was a welcome rest site and I snacked on some cheese and a Coke Zero allowing my feet to dry before I applied some petroleum jelly. That was about the extent of any effective treatment for the moment.

For the next three hours I walked into town knowing the skin damage was quickly mounting.


By the time I reached the eastern outskirts of Pamplona the plan quickly became finding the nearest albergue and getting off my feet. Tomorrow’s challenge would be an extended climb westward toward the famed peak of Alto de Perdón that I knew wouldn’t be friendly to fresh blisters. There’s really almost nothing you can do about it, but getting off your blistered feet helps your mind if nothing else.

Pamplona is the first major city you walk through on the Camino, and a bit of an adjustment after you’ve walked four days through open country. Crossing the Arga River I found myself in a beautiful park-like setting and turned left following directions of the first albergue sign I saw. The sign indicated the albergue as about a thousand meters down the street.

The structure looked more like an old 20th century home I’d see in my hometown, and I wasn’t altogether sure it was, in fact, an albergue. A man, who introduced himself as Heinrich was standing outside the door smoking, with a demeanor that conveyed he didn’t have a care in the world.

I returned the greeting and asked if this was an albergue.

“Yes, it certainly is, and I’d like to welcome you to Casa Paderborn. You are are first pilgrim of the day. I can see you are weary, so let’s get you comfortably situated,” he said.

You know how you connect with some people at first eye contact? Heinrich the German hospitalero was such a man to me.

Heinrich took my passport information, stamped my credencial, and spoke with me in such a way that made me feel right at home. I think it was the first time I’d actually felt “home” since leaving Arkansas.

He graciously grabbed my backpack, leading us upstairs, efficiently saving me extra steps and giving the nickel tour as we made our way toward the bunks. The old wooden floors creaked with every step and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you could smell the history in the old house. Not an unpleasant odor at all – clean, yet just a bit musty, and familiar like an old 1909 house I bought many years ago.

Looking inside the albergue window at night.

Looking inside the albergue window at night.

I chose a bed for the night – one of about a dozen in the room, pulled up an old wooden chair, and moved quickly to the most immediate order of business. I pulled off my shoes and socks to evaluate the damage. There were now three blisters across two feet, and just a bit heartsick, I sat quietly, carefully considering the best course of action. It was bad news for tomorrow, and there was no way around it.

I inserted a clean needle leaving a small length of thread behind in each blister to prevent the buildup of more fluid through the night, and tried my best to forget about it, as much as the raw feeling expressed through each small step would permit. My feet really hurt. Shower stalls were just a few steps down the hall and I washed a few dirty clothes with shampoo while I showered. With only a few short hours of sunshine remaining there wasn’t enough time to dry clothes on the outside line, so I draped a shirt and some socks across an old-fashioned radiator used for heat, a practice that became common along the Way.

With chores for the day now complete I lay down on the bottom bunk and turned my thoughts to food. Famous for many things, not the least of which is its reputation for tapas, downtown Pamplona beckoned, yet the thought of more walking went against every grain of sound judgment I could imagine. The reality after eight hours of hiking, however, is the need for calories.

Heinrich’s directions to Pamplona’s old town sounded much further than I’d hoped to walk for food, but I was hungry, eager to both eat, and get the extra steps behind me so I could soon get horizontal in the bed once and for all. I slipped on my Crocs – maybe my single-best choice brought from home – and walked slowly in that direction, careful to minimize the foot friction as much as possible with each step.

Food Lesson #1: Tapas aren’t served all hours of the day, and, in fact, aren’t generally available until about 6 in the afternoon. It was 4:30, and as absolutely amazing as the city sights were, I had no desire to wander around for the next hour and a half. Walking back toward home for the night, I passed a quiet Greek cafe, gobbled down a gyro with papas fritas and a beer, and returned. It was no less than an extra three kilometers for my blistered feet.

Heinrich was outside smoking again, and I sat with him on a bench before walking back up the stairs. It’s difficult to explain, but was as if Heinrich somehow knew me at a soulful level. He had a pleasant, peaceful voice and an aura I can best describe as simply calming.

“I’ll be going back into town for rosary at the cathedral tonight and it would be wonderful if you would join me,” Heinrich said.

I was completely humbled this man would invite me along for something I could sense was so important to him, but the thought of walking, yet again, into town was almost unbearable.

“I’d love to go with you Heinrich,” my lips spoke before my brain released my honest thoughts. And we agreed to meet back there at 6:45 for the walk to Pamplona Cathedral. Slowly, I pushed my legs back upstairs toward the bed, remembering I came to Spain to experience life more abundantly. “You can lay around in a bed and complain how much you hurt another time,” I heard a voice say. “Nobody asked you to do this thing. Don’t be a crybaby.”



Pamplona Cathedral

Pamplona Cathedral

Aside from a funeral years earlier, I’d never once been to a Catholic church service. I was born, raised, and live, in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt have held “membership” in both Baptist and Methodist Churches. My religious views are simple and very conservative, and yet I’ve always been fascinated by the Catholic church. I didn’t even really know what Rosary was, but knew it would be both an educational and cultural experience to share with Heinrich.

The cathedral was ornamentally spectacular and massive. I remember thinking every student architect in the world should have required study in Europe. The attention to detail in European architecture takes my breath away, and is a far cry from the simple country church where I remember Sunday school and Easter egg hunts as a pre-schooler.

As a non-catholic I participated only as an obvious observer and no one seemed at odds with my presence. The structured ceremony and what seemed to me like matter-of-fact routine was completely different from my own church practices back home, yet there was something special, and I could tell, very serious about it for all the faithful. Heinrich seemed especially prayerful and devout, now oblivious to my presence as his guest. You can tell when someone has a special spirit, a clear, unfettered line of communication with God. Heinrich is such a man. I just took it all in, grateful for the Camino moment.

After the service, he invited me to go for tapas and drinks, but it was 8 p.m., and I respectfully declined. My feet hurt badly, tomorrow was not an easy day, and Heinrich understood. With the assurance I knew my way back to Casa Paderborn, we decided to part ways. He reminded me of a “Pilgrim’s Blessing” he would lead at 7:30 in the morning before departure, and I asked if he’d consider allowing me a video interview beforehand. We agreed on a 7 a.m., interview and I looked forward to probing an important topic with him. My reporter’s intuition told me Heinrich was the perfect interview to discuss “Camino Magic.”



With Heinrich and Hans-George before leaving for Alto de Perdón. I'd go on to lose about 30 pounds after that "fat" photo.

With Heinrich and Hans-George before leaving for Alto de Perdón. I’d go on to lose about 30 pounds after that “fat” photo.

Heinrich and his co-hospitalero, Hans-Georg, prepared a light breakfast for me and the two other pilgrims who’d stayed overnight. They poured coffee as I set up for our interview.

I turned on the GoPro and warmed them up with a few softball preliminary questions to raise their comfort level – I’ve interviewed thousands of people and learned how important this transitional process is many years ago. You don’t just jump in with the big questions right off the bat. You have to make people feel comfortable. You have to help them understand they can speak from their heart without your ensuing judgment. You must give them permission to be transparent. This process is an art form and it’s a beautiful thing when journalist know how to use it properly.

After we reached that point, I moved to where I wanted to go.

“Heinrich, so many pilgrims who experience the Way talk about Camino Magic and how special things happen here, that happen during no other times in their life,” I led him to the pivot. “I’m just not the kind of person who believes in the ‘magic’ of a place. It’s almost contrary to everything I know spiritually. What do you make of Camino Magic?”

And while I already knew Heinrich was a remarkably thoughtful man, I never expected the exquisite way he put his answer into words.

“Yes, Steve, I can understand why you would believe in such a way, but here is what you must understand and think about,” he went on. “The Camino is a magical place and this is why: For a brief window in time, five or six weeks, you have people from every corner of the world, and they are walking together in the same direction, for the same purpose, and toward the same end. There is unity and togetherness on the Camino that perhaps exists no where else in the world today, and especially in these times. It is magic, indeed, and this is something for you to think about as you make your way toward Santiago.”

In the tens of thousands of interview questions I’ve asked people over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever been more amazed by the insight of an answer.

The Camino de Santiago is an international convergence of cheerleaders. We cheer one another on, and receive the benefit of our internal longing to be cheered. Something here permits us to get to the very heart of our design.


Day Trip to Manta, Ecuador

life n puerto cayo ecuador

My friend, Maria Blount of Puerto Cayo began our day with a wonderful breakfast: eggs with tomatoes, fresh fish, sweet bananas and fresh-squeezed papaya juice.

Mom and Aunt Neala near the beach in Las Pinas.

Mom and Aunt Neala near the beach in Las Pinas.

Fishing boats just in from sea in Las Pinas, where we stopped and bought some of the fresh catch pictured below.

Fishing boats just in from sea in Las Pinas, where we stopped and bought some of the fresh catch pictured below.


Crab legs for dinner, and cheap!

Crab legs for dinner, and cheap!

I understand life in Ecuador so much better because of this precious lady, Maria.

I understand life in Ecuador so much better because of this precious lady, Maria.

A papaya farm near our home in Puerto Cayo that I didn't know about until today. Bought two bushels for $5.

A papaya farm near our home in Puerto Cayo that I didn’t know about until today. Bought two bushels for $5.

This home was recently constructed on the beach in Puerto Cayo by our Ethiopian friend, Mesfin Haile. It's spectacular.

This home was recently constructed on the beach in Puerto Cayo by our Ethiopian friend, Mesfin Haile. It’s spectacular.

This is Mesfin's bodega, or storage building. Not too shabby!

This is Mesfin’s bodega, or storage building. Not too shabby!

House Hunters International in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador: The Inside Info

Remember the pop-up videos on VH1?

I enjoyed those little factoids and tidbits because they revealed things you’d never know, even if you watched a hundred times. I’ve always enjoyed knowing the story behind the story. It gives you a whole new appreciation and perspective on what everyone else just wants you to see.

If you enjoy House Hunters International, and tune in to our show tonight, here are a few things you’d never know without reading this post.


A final fun shot with our crew in Ecuador. That's a wrap!

A final fun shot with our crew in Ecuador. That’s a wrap!

*The entirety our show was filmed in chronological reverse. We filmed in Ecuador for three days, came home to the U.S., and filmed the “back story” 10 days later. Furthermore, the first scene we filmed in Ecuador was the “reveal” scene at our home, one of the last things you’ll see on the show. It went backwards from there.

*Two days before we began filming in Ecuador I walked outside to our backyard and smelled a terrible stench. It was as if something had died very nearby, times 10. Further investigation proved that our three-month old septic tank had backed up and was overflowing into the yard and toward the house. Panic ensued. We were unable to flush our toilets for about 36 hours, and some very unfortunate Ecuadorian workers had the job of pumping barrels of raw sewage from our septic tank 12 hours before the HGTV crew arrived. I felt so bad for them. Such is life in Ecuador.

*The “realtor” on our show is an American named Joel Lewis. With his red hair, fair skin and freckles, Joel is a gringo personified. He spends most of his time as an English teacher in nearby Jipijapa. We met only a few days before filming, became good friends, and have stayed in touch.

*One of the opening scenes where we “meet” Joel to provide our wish list was

Saying goodbye to Roberto and Jaha at Sanctuary Lodge on the day we returned to the U.S.

Saying goodbye to Roberto and Jaha at Sanctuary Lodge on the day we returned to the U.S.

filmed at Sanctuary Lodge, the very nicest hotel in Puerto Cayo. Sanctuary is owned by our friends Roberto Cristi and Jahaida Delgado, and their daughter Isabella. If you ever visit this part of the world, it’s highly recommended lodging.

*We had the same director, but two different film crews in Ecuador and the U.S. Our Memphis crew had experience filming “Great Balls of Fire,” and worked on several of the John Grisham films made in there.

*One of the homes we filmed in Ecuador was rented by an Australian couple and their three children who spent much of their time on mission for the Jehova’s Witness Church. They are lovely folks, and were actually in the house the whole time we filmed. As we moved from one room to another, so did they, just out of camera sight.

Doron Schlair of New York, takes time to let an Ecuadorian child look through his camera lens on our first day of filming. Doron is a real artist behind the camera.

Doron Schlair of New York, takes time to let an Ecuadorian child look through his camera lens on our first day of filming. Doron is a real artist behind the camera.

*I’ve always admired talented people who work behind the camera, and our chief videographer in Ecuador, Doron Schlair, is immensely talented. He’s filmed documentaries on Billy Joel, Arnold Schwarzenegger and climbed to the top of Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. I sat down for a long conversation with Doron one night and we were discussing his work – the intricacies and interplay between light and dark. In his work all across the world, Doron told me at sunset, it gets darker in Ecuador faster than anywhere he’s been. I’d noticed the same thing, but never thought about it until he mentioned it. I suppose it’s because we’re on the equator and the earth’s bulge at the horizon is more prominent than other parts of the world. But that’s just a guess.

*You’ll see some scenes of us riding our blue scooter on the beach. During the filming I made a turn on some rocks, and Dana and I shifted our weight in different directions. The result was a pretty good tumble with the scooter landing on both of us. It caused quite the scene on the beach. I know the director thought we were going to sue for damages. We were just really embarrassed.

*You’ll see lots of Ecuadorian people in background shots. Every person you see signed a release for the show. The director was very strict about that.

*There’s a scene at the Agua Blanca mud bath where Dana and I jumped in the water for an impromptu swim race. As we jumped in I accidentally swallowed some of the water (which tastes just like sulfur) and nearly choked. I tried not to let the camera see it because we had to get the shot in one take.

*Speaking of takes, it’s interesting that our entire show was filmed with one camera. But each and every scene is filmed from three different angles. This obviously means each scene is filmed three times, and that’s why it takes 40 hours to film 22 minutes of television.

*In the hours before the crew arrived for Ecuador filming, we were working feverishly to clean the house. As we finished cleaning, and just as I was about to take my shower, on cue, the electricity went out, and stayed out. I filmed the entire first day without the benefit of a shower.

*To make the show interesting, the director always wants a little conflict going on between husband and wife. So for us, it was Dana’s focus on a beach house, versus my interest in staying on budget and living close to the locals.

I can hardly wait to watch the show and see which one we choose!


House Hunters International in Ecuador: Answers to the Questions

(Blogger’s Note: The House Hunters International episode featuring our home buying experience in Ecuador will air this Thursday night at 9:30 Central on HGTV.)


Setting up living quarters in another country isn’t something you do every day. Dana and I always dreamed about it, but until about 18 months ago never knew if things would come together in such a way that we could actually pull it off. So because written communication is what I do, and is actually the way I process things mentally, we decided from Day 1 to take the unique experience and chronicle much of it on my blog so family and friends could take part, too.

The whole ordeal has made for some interesting conversation, and we get lots of questions almost every day about all sorts of things. People want to know what it was like to do what we did, and what it was like to be on the show.

house hunters international in ecuador

Our “realtor,” Joel Lewis, getting wired for sound in one of the three homes we toured on the show. The mother and daughter in the left background are from Australia, and are the actual residents of this home.

These are some of the questions we’re often asked, and the answers we give:

Q: Is House Hunters International real? I’ve read it’s fake.

A: The short answer is this: It’s television. HHI is a reality show, and in my opinion, an entertaining and educational one. The television medium has lots of restrictions. It’s not easy to convey a couple’s home buying experience on another continent in 22 minutes. So for the sake of television, concessions are made. No one in their right mind flies into a new country, looks at three houses in a day and decides to buy one at the end of the day. Our actual experience in deciding to build a home in Ecuador was a 10-day process, and I would never recommend anyone move as fast as we did because that’s very fast. Still, the producers worked very hard to replicate our experience as best they could, and I think the show will be an accurate reflection of what it’s like to buy a home in Puerto Cayo. It glosses over a lot of the hard stuff, and our experience in building a home and acclimating to a new culture posed some real challenges, but that’s not what the show’s about. Is House Hunters International real? It’s more real than most of the television you probably watch.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being on the show?

A: Dana and I became fans of HHI during a formative time in our marriage. In 2009, the economy and a few bad decisions forced the closure of my publishing business and a career that I loved. For the first time in my life, I was uninspired, very uncertain about the future and pretty depressed. There were many nights when we’d watch the show, and for 30 minutes I’d be rescued from that depression. HHI actually inspired me to dream again, and ultimately took our life, and our marriage, in a direction I never imagined. The day we learned we’d been chosen for the show, it felt like a victory over something that had been a very hard fight. So being on the show was very much a celebration of that victory.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

One of my best Ecuadorian friends named Duver, was a huge help to me when he helped get our yard in shape just before the HHI crew arrived.

Q: Have you seen the show yet?

A: No. We will see if for the first time when it airs.

Q: What is life like in Ecuador?

A: That’s a lot like asking what life is like in the United States. It depends on where you live. The coastal region where we built our home is not a tourist or expat destination as you might imagine. Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse country and life can be radically different depending on your locale. The Ecuadorian coast is actually very rural, and has a relatively poor economy. Locals make their living fishing, farming or making crafts. The infrastructure (roads, utilities and other basic services) is in its infancy. We’ve driven lots of gravel roads, and became accustomed to very sporadic electric service. I think many times people believed we were sipping pina coladas by a pool every day, and nothing could be further from the truth. Latin America is not for everyone.

Q: So why would you want a home thousands of miles away in a place like that?

A: Many reasons. First of all, because it is the education of a lifetime. Learning to live a new way, and making friends in a different culture is riskiest, and most educational thing I’ve ever done. Dana and I are never more alive than when we are pushing our comfort zones in Ecuador. Secondly, it gives me an entirely different perspective on my writing, and our lives in general. And finally, even though the economy is still very much emerging and developing, we are going to see unbelievable opportunity on the Ecuadorian coast over the next 15 years. I want to see that, and be part of it.

Q: What do you do when you’re there?

A: Mostly, I write a lot and take a lot of photos. Travel and major changes of environment really inspire my writing. But when we’re there, the culture forces us to slow down a lot, and that’s another reason we enjoy it. We spend a lot of time visiting with local friends, sharing new experiences and we learn something new almost every day.

Q: How did you find a realtor?

A: We didn’t. There are some people who call themselves realtors in Ecuador, but most have no formal training or licensing credentials, and a good number of them are fairly corrupt. Not all, just most. Dana and I conducted our search on our own which made the learning curve even higher.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

One thing we learned in South America, was not to freak out over creatures like this monster I found on our front porch. Those clampers could take a finger off.

Q: Is it safe in Ecuador?

A: In the US, I think we unfortunately stereotype Latin America to be unsafe. I’ve never been fearful in Ecuador, but I also always use a lot of common sense, and am very respectful of the culture. Any international traveler I’ve ever visited with said the media almost always paints a darker picture than that which really exists, and that’s true all over the world. Ecuador is quite safe.

Q: Biggest challenges?

A: (1) Driving in the big cities is madness. Crazy madness. If you don’t have nerves of steel, avoid it. (2) Always remembering that even though I’m a property owner there, I’m still a guest. This very much requires us to forget everything we think we know about right and wrong, take one day at a time, lose our judgmental nature, and laugh a lot. (3) Knowing that when someone in Ecuador says that something conforms to US standards, it will never be true. Only two or three people in Ecuador even know what US standards (especially in construction) mean. That’s partly joke, mostly truth.

Q: Biggest perk?

A: Gas prices regulated by the government at $1.48 per gallon. No contest.

Q: Do you have any regrets?

A: I think anyone who builds a home from the ground up knows what it is to have hindsight. We definitely made some mistakes. But do I regret even the most difficult experiences we had? No way. And I’m eager to see what future adventures are in store.

Q: What advice to you have for other people who are even remotely considering doing what you did?

A: (1) Do a lot of research, but understand that no amount of research can substitute an exploratory trip to wherever you may be considering. (2) It’s very easy to get into a mindset that you could never do something like this. Lose that mindset. Barriers are easier to overcome than you think. (3) If you are close to buying a new house in a foreign country, never, never, never close the deal until you personally witness how the property reacts to a heavy rain. Oh, the humanity.


House Hunters International: How We Got On

(Blogger‘s Note: For four days during late March and early April, Dana and I filmed with House Hunters International, for an episode that’s coming up on HGTV in a few weeks. Until then, I’m writing an occasional blog post about the experience. This is the first in the series.)


It was December 21 last year. After building a house in Puerto Cayo, Ecuador for nine months (with 100% of the communications via internet) Dana and I got on a plane, beside ourselves with excitement to fly way South, and spend just more than three months in our new far-away, get-away. Truth is, we really didn’t even know if we’d come back.

In my 47 years it’s among the most exciting adventures I’ve taken.

Three days after our Memphis departure, we arrived, just as the workers were putting the finishing touches on our Casa Azul. That’s actually what everyone calls our house, and it’s even our “official” address, as much as addresses exist in Puerto Cayo.

After nine long months, it seemed, in the blink of an eye, we were home owners in Latin America. Crazy stuff for a couple of country kids from Arkansas.

Dana, during a filming break at the Agua Blanca mud bath. This is a scene you'll see on House Hunters.

Dana, during a filming break at the Agua Blanca mud bath. This is a scene you’ll see on House Hunters.

During the next few weeks, we learned about things like cisterns, suicide showers, scorpions, freshly caught langostinos , driving where driving rules don’t exist, and we “unlearned” everything we thought we ever knew, embracing life in a new culture. I hate the cliche’, but it’s true. Our lives have never been, and will never again, be the same.

Puerto Cayo (key port), is a small and beautiful, but remote village on Ecuador’s central Pacific coast. The town has about 4,000 people with maybe 100 “foreign” expats.

Its remote proximity and small size add to the irony that two couples who ultimately became our friends, had previously done their own shows with House Hunters International. When the filming company that produces the show contacted them about anyone else they knew who might be interested, they recommended us, and the lines of communication quickly opened.

A few days later, we found ourselves Skyping several times zones away with a casting director in London, where it really all begins.

The phone call was surreal. There had been days when things (about life in general) weren’t so hopeful. Just a few years earlier we’d invested all we had in our own business – dynamic publishing company – that was born just about the time the economy crashed. I closed its doors in less than a year, and spent a long time wondering what was next. It was during this uncertain time that we became HHI fans and spent many nights dreaming the craziest of dreams despite the circumstances.  It was crazy, irrational and unrealistic that we would dream such dreams. But I’m oh, so glad we did. I’m glad we never gave up on dreaming.

House Hunters International is one of those shows that appeals to both men

Me, getting a much needed and first haircut in Latin America. My barber, Antonio, shows the approval of his handiwork.

Me, getting a much needed and first haircut in Latin America. My barber, Antonio, shows the approval of his handiwork.

and women – especially couples who love adventure and don’t mind stepping out of their comfort zones. And there are many things about buying a house in a far-away country that will NOT feel comfortable.

For 45 minutes on the Skype call we shared our story about all the things that had drawn us to Ecuador … childhood dreams, a crazy sense of shared adventure, and a touch of rebellion, all carefully mixed together with a pinch of mid-life crisis … and I knew the conversation was going well. At the call’s conclusion, casting director Michelle James said she’d like to move the process to the next step, and asked us to produce our own three-minute casting video about us and our lives in Puerto Cayo.

I told her it would be ready in seven days.

I couldn’t believe we were really, seriously talking to the people who could actually make it happen, and that they wanted to continue a conversation with us.

Fortunately, Dana had enough foresight early on to bring a tripod on our trip. Over the next three to four days we filmed in our house, on the beach, shopping in town and any number of places that would help convey life in Puerto Cayo. I was the creative director and logistics guy. Dana was executive producer. Three minutes quickly became seven, and we let the length stand, uploaded it to Vimeo and waited. We thought it would be three to four weeks before we heard a peep from them, if we heard back at all.

Four days later, Michelle responded, said the producers loved it, and invited us to work with them.  I’ll never forget telling Dana we were going to be on the show.

In life’s grand scheme it’s pretty insignificant, but it felt wonderfully redemptive.

And filming the show was … so … much … fun.

(Future stories in the series: A feature story on our director, Linda Benya, who talks about why she loves HHI; another profile on our videographer, Doron Schlair, who’s filmed just about every star you can imagine; a behind-the-scenes look at some things that happened during our filming that you’ll likely never see on TV; HHI: is it real or is it fake, you tell me; and what it’s really like to live in Ecuador.)