`American Dream' carved out abroad

CHIRUSCO, Ecuador - Astride his horse, John Ham chews a blade of grass and takes a minute to marvel at his tropical valley of bean fields, sweet-smelling avocado trees and Inca ruins.

The valley is sacred to locals who boast of its fertile land, constant springlike temperatures and long-living residents.

To Ham, a blond Californian who looks like a sun-kissed surfer, the valley is home.

Reversing the well-traveled route of immigrants who flock to the United States in search of freedom and better lives, Ham chose to carve his American dream in the Andean foothills of southern Ecuador.

Ham's ramshackle estate lacks a telephone, indoor toilet and hot water. But he insists the property has everything he needs or wants - neighbors who know his name, blossoming crops and shelter far from a country he calls "a pit of consumerism."

Ham is part of a growing movement of pioneers who pool resources and take their expertise abroad to build idealized communities in places such as Ecuador, Mexico, Scotland and India.

The settlements are part commune and part business venture with a mission: to pick up where the American dream left off.

Quitting the U.S.

"In the 1960s, starting a community was about what people were against," says Laird Schaub at Fellowship for Intentional Community in Rutledge, Mo., an organization that provides information to people who want to set up or join communities.

"Today, these communities are about what people want out of life, and there's a growing number of people who are finding that it is easier and more affordable to get it overseas."

The U.S. State Department says more than 3.8 million Americans lived abroad last year, the highest number in three decades.

Ham and others say their reasons for quitting the United States are simple: expensive housing, scarcity of prime farmland and, especially, the emphasis on material things.

"I got used to the money, the top-of-the-line restaurants and being able to buy anything I wanted," says Carmen Michilena, 40, an Ecuadoran who spent several years in Florida and now lives with an American in a community about an hour's drive from Ham's.

When she was 25 and hoping to earn money to start a business in Ecuador, she moved to Miami, a steady draw for many Latin American immigrants who send their dollars home, where they go further. But Michilena slipped into lavish habits.

Eventually, she says, "I started to realize that life wasn't about making money, and it was then that I wanted to come home."

Like others, Ham and Michilena aimed for the American dream, the notion that equality gives everyone the same opportunity to succeed. It was the centerpiece of historian James Truslow Adams' 1931 book "The Epic of America."

"America is a lot different now," Ham, 37, says. You give up a lot to live in United States, he says, and "I knew I couldn't do that."

Planning a community

It's easy to see the potential in Ham's 2,470 acres, which he bought two years ago for less than $10,000. It's even easier on the Internet, where Ham has fleshed out his vision with outlines and pictures.

The Web site offers information about Ham, the country, the land and the kind of people he hopes to attract. It also says what he wants to accomplish: a community of 20 to 30 people who will pool resources, manage an organic farm and, someday, start an eco-tourism business that highlights the nearby Piscobamba River and Inca ruins.

Ham sees his community as a flexible place that embraces privacy and healthy living. That was a draw for Tina Marshall, 37, who read about Ham's place two years ago, soon after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

Thinking she had only a short time to live, she gave up custody of her children, quit her publishing job in Virginia and left for Ecuador. She says she's healthy now and attributes her apparent remission to a healthier, less stressful way of life.

"For the first time in my life, I feel like I'm home," she says, sitting next to Ham's daughter, Olivia Hambredis, 12, who lends a hand with chores when she's not being home-schooled.

Ham and the three others who have joined him wake each morning at 5 to tend the bean, corn and sugar-cane fields that are already starting to pay for themselves. They spend afternoons building new houses for the enclave. In the evenings, they prepare meals, plan the week and talk into the night.

Boon for some towns

Some in Chirusco, a little town of a couple hundred people, sneer and call inhabitants of settlements like Ham's "the Y2K gringos" because the enclaves' creation coincided with the survivalist, back-to-the-earth ethic that sprang up as the new millennium approached. Others are grateful for the work that the "gringos" have created.

"What can I say?" says one of Ham's Ecuadoran workers, who asked that he not be quoted by name. "I have to work, and they are good people."

Some government officials see the communities as a boost that can help pull Ecuador out of economic ruin.

For the last decade, soaring inflation has driven down the value of the local currency by 80 percent. Joblessness is high, and wages are low, averaging just $70 a month. Corruption and political instability have worsened the crisis.

"While America is offering fewer and fewer opportunities, Ecuador has an open immigration policy that welcomes foreigners who invest in the land," says Hernan Holguin, consul general of Ecuador. "It is cheap to live here, our communities are welcoming and we will soon have a bright economic future that the United States will help make possible."

And that's the irony.

The very thing Ham, Marshall and Michilena tried to escape - the less-salutary effects of the almighty dollar - has chased them to Ecuador. To escape debt and boost its economy, Ecuador's government has scrapped its currency and adopted the U.S. dollar.

"That's why I left the States," Michilena says.

In Miami, Michilena met Joel Segurola - now her partner and father of her daughter, Emily - and Apollo Comito, a Colombian. The three of them saw Ham's advertisement and decided to join. But personalities clashed, and they set up their own community.

Like Ham, Segurola and Michilena have fields of avocados, fruit trees, corn and potatoes. They also have a garden of medicinal herbs and raise turkeys, fish and guinea pigs, a delicacy in Ecuador and other parts of South America.

They live in a small house but plan to move into domes designed by Segurola, a former IBM engineer. One dome, already under construction, has breathtaking views, sleeps eight and features a deluxe bathtub, an alarm system and skylights.

Segurola, 37, also wants to build an orphanage, a school and irrigation projects. He talks, too, of becoming a winemaker and making money - a necessary evil.

While community life offers things that members say they can't get in the United States, they admit missing some creature comforts.

Ham says extravagance now is bringing home a bottle of wine.

Segurola, looking at a string of bananas hanging from a porch rafter, has a short but specific list: "Good Thai food and `Star Trek' would be at the top."