Signs of the Times

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Warning: This post is hypocritical, cynical, and questionable because I have no answers, only more questions.

Yesterday, I read a post from a blogging friend. She was invited to speak at an International Living Conference. I enjoy reading her informative posts about creating blogs, new technological advances, and portable careers. So, I clicked on the International Living Conference website to see who was presenting and what their areas of expertise were.

I should have known better, because out of the 16 presenters, nine were real estate developers. I read through their bios. Phrases included: has made more than 50 real estate investments in nine countries across five continents, moved into real estate development and acquired 1,100 acres and three kilometers of coastline, an accomplished real estate professional whose expertise in international investment real estate sets him apart from most, and has more than 33 years experience in commercial and residential property investment.

The price for the 2 1/2 day convention was $647 per person. I had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the website to find this information, bypassing many clicks for “sign up now.”  No surprise that the international real estate developers were targeting wealthy white people for their gated, sequestered resort communities. This is not a conference for those seeking simple, compassionate, culturally immersed lifestyles.

Four of the presenters were international attorneys. I imagine that if one has enough money to buy into their overpriced resorts, one will need a good attorney when it comes time to flip the property for a hefty profit.

It’s a mad, mad world in the field of international real estate flipping. Poor, unsophisticated campisinos sell their land for pennies to hungry real estate developers. Then, wealthy, fearful foreigners buy the gated compounds seeking paradise in a McDonald’s wrapper.  Prices for everything are jacked up, making it impossible for the locals to get to their jobs as the dishwashers, maids, and waiters in the heavily guarded compounds because they have had to move far away to find affordable housing.

To be fair, in exploring several international development websites in Nicaragua, I found one website that included a page on “Giving Back”. ONE WEBSITE ONLY.  Shameful. We are destroying this country with our greed, our consumerism lifestyles, and our selfish shouts of “give me more for less”. Mas barato!

I am a hypocrite! What makes me any different from the wealthy white people attending the International Living conference? We bought beach front property, built two small houses, and hire the locals to machete our grass. Am I wrong for moving to Nicaragua? Am I creating more problems for the local islanders? Have I done enough to help and pay forward the blessings I have received from living in a first world country?

Should I be writing about my experiences living in Nicaragua? The remaining three presenters at the conference are expats touting their publications of living cheaply in paradise. I am writing a book, too. What makes me any different? Just because I’m a ‘poor economic refugee’ with a passion for cultural immersion doesn’t set me on top of the pedestal of expats seeking their retirement dreams.

There are no answers. All I know in expressing my vulnerabilities and doubts about living abroad, is that I am changed. I have a greater appreciation for life, the struggles, the joys, and the sacrifices we all make in pursuing our dreams. I am a better person for it…a more forgiving and compassionate person. Life is real here…there are no hidden agendas or pretenses. It’s the sign of the times for me…fulfillment of passions, cultural immersion, and peace in our troubled world.

23 thoughts on “Signs of the Times

  1. I first ran into “International Living” (and its sister magazine, “Live and Invest”) online when I started think about how to retire early and experience life in another country. Initially, (like so many travelers and expats I’ve talked to over the years) the magazine opened my eyes to the possibilities of living as an expat and that life in so many exotic areas of the world could be affordable. So it helped me think a bit outside the box as well as introduced me to many glorious countries I hadn’t thought about previously. However, the magazine’s constant positivity and wildly inaccurate estimates of cost of living are downright dangerous as it lures desperate and gullible people to new countries without warning them of the many adjustments necessary to living as expats and the downsides including the impact of tourism and rampant development with no oversight. I’ve always appreciated your blog as you discuss the difficulties in living in a remote area without many of the conveniences that North Americans are accustomed to (potable tap water, supermarkets, expensive electricity, in-your-face poverty, etc.). No place is paradise and a magazine (s) that promises such needs to be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism. Anita

    • Anita, I hadn’t thought about when we started reading International Living. But, now that I recall, it was when we were exploring places to live abroad. We were naive, too. We searched for everything we could find on retiring abroad. Boy how things change with experience. IL opened my eyes to the possibilities, yet now all I see are $$$$ in that publication.

  2. well it took me long enough to get here/to your post, and wow, therer’s a lot of interesting feedback!

    tis late, so i’m about to log off but wanted to say hi. most likely i’ll be heading to the coast next week, and i suspect its going to be a very heart-wrenching and tearful visit.

    hope you’re feeling well…. i am better but the chikV still affects my hands/fingers.. love, lisa

      • si.. my friends have been there/jama twice and say that i won’t recognize jama.. they say that many houses that are still standing are marked to be torn down.

        well, partner in suffering, we both realize that we’re lucky compared to those who have no home and are living beneath plastic tarps…. i think about last year’s epidemic – it’s good that it went thru a year ago and not now.. can you imagine all of the damage and grief and to also be battling dengue and chiky?

  3. Your post caught my eye today because I have been to a couple of those conferences put on by International Living. Yes, I do want to escape the rat race in the USA. I want to but I can’t figure out how to do it. Everywhere I’ve looked at want’s proof that I’ll have enough (outside) income to support myself. So, yeah, I went to the conferences hoping to find something new that would help me move.
    No, I am not interested in any kind of Americanized gated community. I’ll never understand why someone would move half way around the world just to turn the new place into something just like the place they just left.
    I grew up on the beach in Florida, so in some way I understand in my heart exactly where you’re coming from. I don’t want to move someplace new and ruin it with my presence either. But I do really want to find some other place to live where I can just relax and enjoy life, without so much stress, aggravation and worry about money and image all the time.
    So, what are your thoughts on someone like me, how can people like me emigrate to somewhere like Nicaragua without ruining it?

    • Excellent questions, Capt. Jill. First, if you want residency in Nicaragua, you will have to submit proof of a lifetime income such as Social Security or a pension, or an investment portfolio. But, the good news is that the lifetime income is very low in Nicaragua. It is $750 a month per person and $100 for dependants. So, it is doable for those on a fixed income.
      Second, I believe it is important to plan ahead for your future, especially when purchasing property and building a house in a developing country. Always rent first…the longer the better. Then, when you build, blend into the existing community. You don’t want to stand out in a developing country because that makes you a target.
      Third, give back to your community. It takes a while to find your niche and how you can give back, but once you find it, you will forever be rewarded with knowing that you can make a difference, no matter how great or how small.
      Fourth, understand and accept that you are not moving to paradise. Paradise doesn’t exist anywhere. There will be many challenges to work through…poor infrastructure, language barriers, tropical diseases, harsh climate..just to mention a few.
      Some days I wonder why I moved to Nicaragua. Yesterday it was 90 degrees in the shade with 70% humidity, the wandering cows broke our gate 4 times to get into our property to eat our new green grass, and our electricity was out for two hours during the heat of the afternoon, so we couldn’t sit under the fans and sweat the rest of the day away. But that is the reality of living in a developing country.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Capt. Jill.

      • I understand where you’re coming from. I know no place is perfect. I think I’m probably more like a PT than a person who wants to stay forever in one place. I was in Nicaragua last August for about a month, I really loved it. The main thing I didn’t like was how hot and humid it was all the time and it seemed no one liked to use AC. I live near Houston, TX and grew up in FL so I’m used to hot and humid (and bugs too), but at this point I don’t really like the idea of not having AC when it’s steaming outside.
        I did wander up to Matagalpa for a few days, just for that reason.I had to find someplace cooler. I really liked it there and could see myself living there for a while.
        I have no desire to buy any more property anywhere. I figure I can rent a place and I don’t need much. I spent a lot of years living in little efficiency apartments. Most of my time I spend at sea (3+ months at a time), and my room is TINY.
        I want to travel to see how things are in other places. I would love to be able to slow down some and do the things I really enjoy for a change instead of busting my ass all the time to make $$ for somebody else!
        I like to write, paint, play music, read, take pictures, explore. I’m interested in a lot of things. I’m sure I could find something interesting to join in where ever I wind up that would be good for both parties. Me and the locals.
        I love to hear how other ‘expats’ wind up making it in other countries, that’s the main reason I subscribed to International Living all those years ago. I’m glad you’re making a go of it down there and always interested to hear more.
        Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. 🙂

  4. International Living has always been what it is …a lets make a buck…on seminars , etc etc…and getting lazy people who just want to pay for ….info….

    info u need to do …on your own!!!!!


    So , their taken advantage of …whats new????

    Make everything look cheap and fabulous , have people sign up for …whatever ..

    What a way to make …a buck……YAWN!!!!!!!!

  5. Reblogged this on Rewired and Retired in Nicaragua and commented:

    Today I read an Open Letter to International Living from expats that retired to Vilcabamba, Ecuador in 2004. There was an interesting discussion of the cons of International Living and the effects of profit-centered marketing on vulnerable pristine places throughout the world. I fear that San Juan Del Sur may be the next victim of insensitive and destructive development. It is a shame because this once quaint fishing village is now experiencing an increase in crime, and uncontrolled environmental sabotage. I wrote this post in 2011, and it remains true today so I thought I would share it once again.

    • The only places that can resist being turned into tourist destinations are the places that have something going on economically besides being beautiful. Crime always goes up with tourism in poor places. Often the locals who are law-abiding don’t care what happens to a bunch of weekenders who bring their groceries with them, or expats who never buy their goodies locally. We didn’t in rural Virginia. My guess is San Juan del Sur will explode if a gringo ever kills a Nicaraguan there (Jinotega had some nasty demonstrations on the first court days for the murderer here and residents asked the local hospital to kick him out when the prison system brought him back for surgery).

      The pattern here for 300 years was that some people from away settled here and assimilated, married into local families, made their livings as farmers. The people who’d settled in to assimilate made it safe for other people to consider moving there, and eventually developers built places for even more people who simply wanted to be somewhere desirable and well known enough so that people at cocktail parties envied them for the beach house in Acapulco or the camp in the Adirondacks. The dream is making Nicaragua, or some part of it, one of those aspirational destinations.

      Artists from away often are the pioneers who make a place cool for people who want to be somewhere with bragging rights for being there: Tuscany, San Ramon Allende, maybe Granada, Floyd County, Virginia in some circles. Agriculture becomes impossible because of land taxes and prices set for recreation farms. To survive, people have to cater to vacationers, who want swimming pools, golf courses, and friendly hotel staff who can dance and sing. Nobody from away assimilates since they have their own community. Since the locality is still poor (the people from away shop away and avoid local taxes while insisting on service improvements), it can’t afford the kind of saturation policing that Charleston, SC, and Washington, DC, have. The resorts become more and more isolated from local life. House prices go higher and higher.

      The only places that can resist this have something else going on economically, and land isn’t a spectacular bargain, and servants cost a bit more than $150 a month (I pay C$100 an hour for an occasional house cleaning and can’t imagine anyone believing that they’re bringing good jobs to Nicaragua who pays less).

      Japan used to be the ideal Asian vacation spot because Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos were having wars, and China was off limits until the US changed policy there. Japan lost tourist cachet the more prosperous it became. In SE Asia, people are still cheap and eager to please and Myanmar has opened up, too.

      Campeche in Mexico has all the stuff that should make it a prime destination, but tourism isn’t its economic lifeblood and it’s fairly prosperous from oil and related industries. Matagalpa will probably be able to resist being International LIving’s promos because there’s some real money there among the Nicaraguans who don’t appear to want that game. Ometepe seem likely to face what Floyd County in Virginia faced as it’s already full of the sorts of New Agers who charge $350 for a weekend shamanistic workshop (funny, the guy running it doesn’t look Siberian) or $1700 for the chance to learn a building technique that doesn’t work in the tropics. One way a place becomes prosperous is driving out all the poor people.

      This is why I want the canal here if the environmental issues can be resolved or managed. Will it hurt tourism? Hopefully, yes. It’s why I wanted skilled manufacturing that couldn’t be shipped elsewhere, owned by people who lived in the same county as their factories, in my area of rural Virginia. Year round jobs, not tourism’s seasonal jobs, not the factories that negotiated tax breaks and moved out in a decade for someplace with even cheaper people. My uncle’s farming partner was a former Dupont computer programmer in a place that no longer has a Dupont plant.

      Urban people tend to see agriculture as something people need to be rescued from, but a lot of people who do low cash subsistence living don’t share that opinion. Yeah, they’re happy enough to have cell phones and televisions and Facebook like the rest of us, so that’s their own contradiction. What’s been destroying subsistence and low cash cultures more than anything else has been states setting property taxes at what the land would be worth as tourist developments or retirement communities, or, in the 19th Century, as coffee fincas. Honduras has been especially nasty in terminating indigenous land ownership over tax issues and handing property over to resort developers. In the 19th Century, coffee growers got land that the indigenous cultures weren’t paying taxes on, so this confiscation of land that’s not making the state money is old here.

      I guess this qualifies as yet another of my rants.

      • Yes, Rebecca, I would qualify it as one of your rants. Yet, many of your thoughts and opinions are thought-provoking and stimulate an interesting conversation. Conversations in which we need to be open to discuss about the problems we face in living in a developing country.
        I disagree with some of your points, and agree with others. Responsible and sustainable tourism will help the people in Nicaragua. Uncontrolled and irresponsible tourism and development will only create more problems. In my opinion, not all tourism is bad. It depends on the intentions and foresight of everyone involved in developing businesses and housing options.
        I chuckled about your comments about some of the new-age businesses on Ometepe. I just have to shake my head and I agree totally with your thoughts.
        Regardless of whether it is a tourism business, or a manufacturing business, or a call center business…the fact is that they are all profit-driven. They didn’t come to Nicaragua to relax, integrate with the people, and have fun. They came to make money…and that’s where there is a fine line of responsible business practices vs irresponsible business practices.
        Now, as far as the canal, I cannot imagine the Chinese saying, ” Oh wait. We have to think of the needs of the people and protect the environment first.” There is no way that’s going to happen, at least not in my lifetime.
        Sad to say, but many businesses all over the world could care less about saving the environment or displacing the local people. Money talks.
        The Japanese built a shark fin processing plant on Lake Cocibolca in the 40s. It was very profitable until there were no more bull sharks that entered the lake. Then, they moved out to better hunting grounds. It reminds me of The Lorax.
        I don’t know what will help to alleviate these problems. Possibly zoning regulations or a commitee comprised of the local mayor and other residents of a community who can review new projects before they build. All I know for sure is that Nicaragua has to watch out because it won’t take much without regulating businesses before we live in a treeless, polluted, and crime ridden country.
        And I will say it again. I am only a guest in this country and not permitted to stick my nose in Nicaragua’s business. So, I try to walk the guest line. It’s hard sometimes. Yet, I see so many changes in this country in 12 years. Many good changes, but many bad changes, too. Thanks Rebecca for opening a dialogue.

  6. I agree with most of Dean’s comments concerning development, and also your worries concerning what blight this blog may bring to the island. scary stuff.
    i am not sure, however, if the contridition makes you a hypocrite because you appear to take responsibility for your actions as a foreigner. There is no space of purity in this contemporary world, and one can only struggle in the muck and hopefully locate footings that moves one forward in a direction that is accountable for something. Whew!

  7. Your post reminded me of the line from the Eagles’ song “The Last Resort” – “You call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.” I live in the states, so I certainly don’t speak from any point of authority, but I suspect the locals are (on the whole) glad to have the influx of jobs and foreign money. Of course, that said, any ‘ecosystem’ (in this case, I guess it would be a socio-econo-system, if that’s even a term!) that’s upset is bound to suffer some negative changes (some small, some large.). As you implied, it’s a quandary!

    You’re not going to stop progress, so I think you’re on the right track writing a blog that sensitizes those of us with paler skin (and larger – relatively speaking – bank accounts) to the cultural, social and economic issues of ex-pat living.

    • Thanks so much for your thought provoking comments, Sharon. When I started my blog this summer, I was back in the states, and homesick for the island. At first, I just wanted to write stories about my life here, but my stories have changed recently. I’m more focused on the cultural sensitivities and the impact that we, as foreigners, have on the local economies. Like you said, I can’t stop progress, but I can expose some of the quandaries expats face. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  8. No te precupes Debbie, you have a very good blog that I belive will at least only attract like-minded people. I learned from my many travels and living in a number of latin countries that it is easier to ‘change yourself than to change those around you’ and fortunately it is definately not for everyone to live there. It is easy to become infatuated with a new place but after the newness and adventure wears off the reality is too much for some…

  9. I didn’t want to say anything but now that you are aware of what is going on in the developing for profit world, you are either part of the problem or the solution. Your colorful blog will entice more people to move to Ometepe. Fortunately people like you don’t build places that completely stand out from the locals, but in the same style with a few upgrades. However ‘poco a poco’ even too many nice, adventurous, socially conscious people that buy into a unique place like la isla will change it, and when there are enough of these living there the big boys will come in and finish the job with their developments that make the locals feel like the life they have is nothing. Ask anyone that has lived in SJDS for more than 10 years…

    • Dean,
      I know what you are saying. That’s why I wrote this post. It is such a dilemma. I’ve seen what has happened to SJDS and I don’t like it one bit. Ometepe is a small island. I guess that is a good thing because there is limited land left for development. I’ve seriously considered the implications of my blog, especially now that I am getting more hits daily. But, I love to write and share the stories of daily life on la isla. Such a

  10. Your article certainly resounded with my feelings on this subject…….I was overwhelmed as I stood surveying the piece of heaven that was now ours. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the lovely gentleman who brought me here in his pedicab I felt a sense of embarrassment ….I found myself looking at this through his eyes… land….gringo bought it…..but he was so gracious and simply smiles and nodded as we tried to understand each other…. my heart swelled at the pure beauty of this place…..and the connection that I felt was forged between us. I shall take care of your land….you will always be welcome at my table…..I will attend your baseball games and support your team…..I too feel that life is real there…..and I shall play my music loud….so farmers walking their cattle down the road will be washed in it…..

    • Eileen,
      What wonderful thoughts! My sentiments exactly! In fact, I just returned from Luvis’ soccer game. Her team won the semi-finals and they play next weekend for the championships. I feel so alive here and so much a part of my community. I never felt that way in the states. I hardly knew my neighbors. I’ll be listening for your music when you arrive. lol

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