I often have people ask, “How do you access your pensions, while living on an island?” Six years ago, the answer was bi-monthly trips to the mainland. Now, we have one ‘money machine’, or ATM on la isla. For the first four months, accessing our bank account in the USA was simple. I made daily trips to the ATM, and withdrew our limit with my VISA debit card.
Since most of Nicaragua operates on a cash only basis, I had to walk to Banco ProCredit daily because we were building a house and paying the construction workers. But, things turned ugly in January, when our bank in the USA changed their debit cards from VISA to MasterCard. The ATM only accepted VISA. We had no way to get access to our money on the island.
Living on an island presents many challenges. It requires one to be persistent, vigilant, and think outside of the box. Frantic calls to our bank in the states only increased my anxiety. Phrases such as, The Patriot Act, money laundering, and deportation scared me to death.
Our only option was to open a bank account with Banco ProCredit, travel to the mainland where the banks accepted MasterCard, withdraw as much money as we could, and haul the loot back to la isla to deposit in our new Banco ProCredit account.
Banco ProCredit gave us an ATM card. The ‘money machine’ works well…most of the time. We completed our construction, so no more daily walks to the bank. Life is challenging, but the rewards so outweigh the challenges of living on an island, in the middle of an enormous lake, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America.
The Money Machine
November 8, 2004
We have seen many changes in our sleepy little port town of Moyogalpa recently. The bakery has enlarged and now has two glass cases filled with bread, beautifully decorated cakes with icing that miraculously withstand the tropical heat, and personal pan sized pizza. There are two internet cafes, both competing for customers. Our regular café moved into a brightly painted room, far removed from the nuts and bolts of the hardware store, installed air conditioning, a couch and two overstuffed chairs, free coffee, and a satellite connection. Burman’s (one of my English students) mother opened the other internet café and a price war is helping to keep down the costs for our usage.
Many of the pulperías (Mom and Pop grocery stores) have expanded their inventory. Our weekly grocery expeditions are a game of hide and seek. An odd assortment of things crammed into tiny stores have no sensible order. Shoes are stacked next to the tomatoes. Piñatas dangle on ropes next to plastic buckets and underwear. Fresh eggs are squeezed between shampoos and antacids. At Hector’s mini market, they have a few jars of Kroger’s peanut butter and Bimbo whole wheat bread, now. A new meat market opened last week. When we went in to buy frozen hamburger, (our first hamburger meat in four months) they tried to sell us a cell phone and three manzanas of land. Yesterday, they even drove out to our house to take us to see the land. We weren’t hard to find because we’re the only gringos in La Paloma. The land was beautiful, level, planted with small plantains, and 100 yards to the beach. But, they wanted $32,000 for it and it was 4 miles out-of-town with no house, no water, and no electricity. Moreover, that was definitely a gringo price. (I’ll write about that later)
Although we are able to fulfill most of our needs in Moyogalpa, supplies are still sporadic and limited. There are now six banks in Moyogalpa. Since not one of them has an ATM, we have to make bi-monthly trips to Rivas to get access to our bank account. Julio and Luvis, our neighbor kids, accompanied us to Rivas. They had told us that their mother was going to return in December. They were eagerly looking forward to their first trip off the island to meet her in Rivas, then for reasons we would rather not surmise, their mother is no longer coming home and has stopped sending the family money. They sold the two baby goats for fish because their cupboards were bare.
Julio and Luvis had many ‘firsts’ in their young lives on our trip to Rivas. Some ‘firsts’ involved transportation such as, an hour-long ferry ride and a taxi ride (that was an interesting experience because we’re still charged gringo prices for the taxi, but hands tightly gripping two Nica niños can miraculously lower the cost). Other firsts were food related: first trip to the market, first hamburgers, and French fries. It was their first experience buying new clothes (We bought them new blue jeans and t-shirts) Although everything awed our two, backward neighbor kids, it was the ATM that really floored them.
We led them into a small, windowless cubicle attached to the bank. Luvis shivered from her first experience in air conditioning and Julio watched inquisitively as Ron inserted a card into a machine and pressed numbers. We told them money was going to come out of the machine and Julio cupped his hands below the ATM, while Luvis rolled up her blouse to catch the money. Ron and I couldn’t stop laughing because we couldn’t imagine what was going through their heads. When twenty-dollar bills came rolling out of the machine, they looked at each other astounded.
After an exciting day, we walked home with Luvis and Julio munching on their first apples and a goody bag filled with food for Papa. Luvis wore her new clothes and I pretended I was a modeling scout and took pictures of her modeling her new clothes. Julio rambled on and on about El Ferry, his favorite part of the trip.
The next day, Papa met us at the fence and thanked us for everything we had done for his children….and I think he asked where he could get a money card like ours.
Meanwhile, I sit here, at my computer, writing about finding hamburger meat, peanut butter, a new TV, and a cell phone, while our neighbors are selling baby goats to feed the family and wondering why Mama isn’t coming home. Young boys are dreaming impossible dreams of becoming lawyers and doctors with monthly college tuitions of $20, while I push buttons at an ATM giving me unheard of amounts of money. We paid over $1,000 to have our dog’s leg mended in the states, while teachers here are struggling to make ends meet on $735 a year.
Something is terribly wrong…and I feel guilty. I’m torn with conflicting feelings of gratitude for the opportunities that I have had and frustration at the plight of our impoverished neighbors. I’m overwhelmed with unanswerable questions about poverty and what I can do to help within the confines of cultural restrictions. The islanders are very proud people. I have to be very careful not to step on any macho toes. Even if I could give Papa a money card, with no strings attached, it wouldn’t help. They have no concept of saving for a rainy day, budgeting, or investing in their future. They live from crisis to crisis, which must be a pattern of poverty that transcends cultural borders.
In our 4 ½ months of living on an island, in the middle of Nicaragua , in the middle of Central America , I have learned so many things from our neighbors and the students I teach. I am awed by the generosity of those who have little to share, fascinated by their perceptions of their lives, and thankful for the opportunity to live among these proud people.
Ron and I love Ometepe. This land and its people have touched our souls. Every day, with the waters of Lake Cocibolca lapping at our three front doors, the tropical breezes caressing our suntanned skin, the laughter of the children and the playful splashes of the fishermen casting their nets into the shallow waters near our doors, we are finding it increasingly difficult to return to our previous lifestyles. Like Papa, we are looking for that money card, too because I don’t think we can stretch out our unemployed lives for ten more years. However, this is a land of miracles, who knows what we will discover in the months to follow. The money card is here, we just haven’t found it yet.