Chautauqua. A meeting of the minds. In Ecuador.
Normally, this type of thing would be out of the box for the Max Out of Pocket crew. But then again, this whole questionable blogging career has also been a bit out of the box.
So here it went.
Chautauqua — “…an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer.” Robert M. Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Taking A Leap
I am still not entirely sure where I first heard about Cheryl Reed. I probably read about her on a blog or something. All I really knew was she occasionally hosted get-togethers down in Ecuador to talk about interesting topics like personal finance and happiness. When I initially contacted her about possibly attending one of her Above The Clouds Retreats, I was a bit hesitant and didn’t really know what to expect.
There’s that word though. Retreat. If one of my friends told me they were going on a “retreat”, the old Max would probably relentlessly make fun of them until they canceled the whole thing. Yes, I can be mean-spirited like that, believe it or not.
But this one was different. Something had caught my attention.
I had an interest in attending one of these things a year or two ago, but never really looked into it too much. I guess I always figured they came with a prerequisite of either being retired early or running a six-figure blog. Both Ecuador and the subject matter interested me, but was that enough? After formally corresponding with Cheryl, her love for Ecuador jumped right out of her emails. I was pretty much sold at that point.
Cheryl’s first visit to Ecuador was over 20 years ago. She fell in love with the country and five years later, she went down there and bought a farm. The rest is history. Cheryl was doing 6 months in Ecuador and 6 months in the States for a long period of time to make it work. But recently, she was able to pull the plug permanently and commit to living there full time. She started hosting retreats several years back to share Ecuador with others and give them time to unplug from the world. Talk about living your dream.
Selling The Trip To Mrs. Max OOP
Believe it or not, Mrs. Max OOP didn’t even flinch when I initially brought up the idea of hanging out with a bunch of random people for a week in Ecuador to talk about personal finance. She sometimes calls these people my “internet friends”. At least I have friends. Seriously though, I was pretty pumped she was open to the idea. I suppose the fact that the event was located in Ecuador and not in the middle of Ohio helped me with the sale.
We weren’t sure Mrs. Max OOP would be able to swing the time off work since it was the week before Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is a week she already has off from teaching, so asking for another week off seemed a bit of a stretch. I initially signed up to go on the Chautauqua solo but we were pleasantly surprised when Mrs. Max OOP was approved for the week off. Cheryl was able to accommodate the late add. She even offered up a supplemental Galápagos Island itinerary she was willing to let us “borrow” for our second week in the country.
So we booked the flights and flew down to Ecuador on November 15th.
Our itinerary was pretty simple.
We planned to fly into Quito and take the bus with Cherly and the group to Hacienda Chorlavi in Ibarra. This would be our home base for the week. We would then just follow the agenda Cheryl had mapped out for everyone. At the end of the week, Mrs. Max OOP and I would come back to Quito and go on to the Galápagos Islands by ourselves.
The hacienda in Ibarra was quite nice. It had all the amenities you might expect from a higher-end hotel in the States including a pool, spa, and gym. They even put a nice warm water bottle in our bed at bedtime. There is a nice garden full of avocados and common areas for groups of people to hang out in. Since this was technically doubling as a vacation for us, we splurged on a few things like a massage and a few extra bottles of wine. Mrs. Max OOP and I really enjoyed the food at the hacienda.
We had a total of 19 people all with very different backgrounds.
I was happy to find out was it was going to be a smaller group and this is a perfect size for this type of event. It also quickly became evident that healthcare had a solid representation. We had a physician and founder of Physician On Fire, two nurse practitioners, a dermatologist, a physical therapist, and the one and only healthcare bean counter. I was the bean counter and Cheryl Reed was the physical therapist. Cheryl and I got to talk about interesting things like functional G code reporting, KX modifiers for medical necessity, and RUGs. These are all things healthcare finance folks get excited about.
We had a nice mix from other industries as well. This included four IT professionals, two teachers (including Mrs. Max OOP), a veteran who used to crash planes for a living, a former Airbnb employee, a marketing expert from the wine industry, a former rocket scientist, one of the early employees of Uber who is moving on to better things, the founder of Afford Anything, and a commercial restaurant equipment supplier/appraiser from Canada. Oh, and one of those (former) IT professionals was the founder of Think Save Retire.
More Than Just A Job Title
Needless to say, these people were all pretty impressive. But these were only job titles and the kind of thing most of us were trying to get away from.
Everyone had interesting personal backgrounds and various reasons for being there. They came from all over the United States and Canada. They were all extremely ambitious and had some kind of personal goal they wanted to achieve. The group was very well-traveled and collectively we had been all over the world. Four of them had already retired early or were on some sort of sabbatical. Some were on the cusp of early retirement. Others were working on interesting projects of their own. Some had children, and some didn’t. Some ate meat, some didn’t. All had a sense of humor.
So We Have The Minds, Now What?
Our first encounter with the group was Saturday night dinner right outside of Quito. Everyone was a bit tired from traveling, but we got the usual meet and greet stuff out of the way. At one point, someone asked, “Are we going to be able to buy alcohol before we go to the Hacienda?”
I am in the corner thinking, “Hmmm…I am already starting to like this group!”
Twenty minutes later, a guy from Colorado hands me a piece of candy that is infused with alcohol. This is getting even better.
We woke up on Sunday and took a bus ride the hacienda just outside of Ibarra, Ecuador. About halfway there, we stopped to check out the Cayambe world equator. I went ahead and added that to my bucket list so I could go ahead and cross it off.
Walk on the equator.
We also got to stop and see the oldest hacienda in Ecuador and ate lunch there. The food was excellent. It was only Sunday and I had already met a bunch of interesting people, walked the equator, and saw the oldest hacienda in Ecuador. Normally I would be reporting for work the next day. Here I was already feeling unplugged and I still had two more weeks of vacation. It felt great.
Is this what early retirement is like?
I noticed by day two everyone was already starting to warm up to each other. It was actually an amazingly quick transition. Mrs. Max OOP, in particular, usually needs a few
days weeks months to warm up to people. By day three I dare say she made some friends.
We would meet in the morning and discuss various topics such as happiness, personal finance, FATFire, Morbidly ObeseFire, RVing, donor-advised funds, and even did some self-reflection. I suck at self-reflection, but I am working on that. The speakers would get things started, but the presentations were extremely interactive.
We would have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together as a group. We naturally sat with different groups every meal to get to know everyone. In the afternoon we would normally do an activity which included hiking or some interaction with Ecuadorian culture. The hikes included both Lake Cuicocha and Peguche Falls. We visited the Peguche Wasi Cooperative to see a weaving demonstration that completely blew my mind. Everything was handmade so we bought a really nice blanket and a few nice sweaters.
We also were able to check out the Otavalo market and Condor Park. We saw several birds of prey and learned about some of the park’s rehabilitation initiatives.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was the downtime in between doing some of the interesting excursions on the agenda. Driving around Ecuador on a bus is a great way to see the country. Time at the hacienda interacting with other like-minded people was also great. We played pool, heads up (FIRE edition), watched the Playing With Fire documentary, drank beer and coffee, and relaxed in the hot tub.
The dermatologist even gave me a free consultation on a few moles I had some concerns about. Max got a clean bill of health and a great recommendation of taking a photo of the front and back of my body. That way, I can easily monitor any suspicious changes to moles and other skin issues that may come up through life. This definitely something that didn’t get checked at my free preventive exam back in October. I would probably get charged between $150-$200 in the States for that same service.
The week closed out with a final bus trip back to Quito for a tour of the city. We checked out several churches, the presidential palace, and squeezed in one last dinner before everyone headed to the airport. Mrs. Max OOP and I stayed in Quito that night since our flights to the Galapagos weren’t until the next day. Cheryl was able to drop us at the airport in the morning.
A blog post probably can’t do this trip justice. I would definitely do an event like this again. As they say, you are the company you keep. If we don’t ever change up that company, we become stagnant. Surrounding ourselves with new and interesting people expands perspective. I don’t care if we call it a “retreat”, “Chautauqua”, or hanging out above the clouds with random “internet friends”.
Openly talking about personal finance and intentional living without worrying about offending someone was also great. I want to emphasize this. Talking personal finance with friends and family can be a challenge. It was nice being able to speak freely.
One of the biggest takeaways I came out with was I am probably a better candidate for FATFire than I thought, and that likely suits my goals. I will just need to hold out longer. Since I am more engaged with my job and healthcare than I have been for some time, I don’t think that will be a problem.
I learned something from every single person I met on the trip and I expect that we will stay in touch. My approach to personal finance was validated in a lot of ways and I even was able to implement a few new things. I am thankful everyone was willing to take some time away from their friends and families to make this trip work.
The country of Ecuador is absolutely beautiful and the people are very friendly. I need to give Cheryl Reed a ton of credit here. She is living her dream and does a great job coordinating these trips. I would recommend reaching out to her if you have any interest in attending one of these in the future. I would love to see a retreat in the next year or two with a healthcare twist – let’s make it happen.
What are you doing to change things up?