On Being a Mule



Mules help to scratch each other. -Latin proverb

I am a mule. I have hauled more items to Nicaragua from the states than I can recall. This evening my bags are packed again…and I am ready to return to Ometepe Island.

After loading and unloading, rearranging, prioritizing, organizing, stuffing, and squeezing…my bags are finally in travel mode. I’ve carried some unusual items across borders for friends. The most noteworthy thus far have been a feeding tube for a child with cerebral palsy (apparently Nicaragua does not make quality feeding tubes), one thousand pairs of ear plugs for a hotel downtown, a pool filter, some kind of cables for a Yamaha ATV, a three piece suit??, and a variety of exotic spices.

The usual items requested are electronics. I’ve carried dozens of cell phones, six Kindles, five cameras, three laptops, and a small flat screen TV. I’ve delivered a few credit cards, a lot of food items (speciality teas, Tiger sauce, Hellman’s mayonnaise ), and lots of non-prescription vitamins and anti-itch creams.

I have my mule team well organized. Mules help to scratch each other. We take turns with orders and deliveries. Our needs are less than before because we can find many things in Nicaragua that we couldn’t buy several years ago.

But, yesterday in the Halloween isle at Walmart…well, let’s just say that was my downfall.


Keep your fingers crossed that this happy mule will arrive back home with full bags of unmelted Halloween candy.


See you soon, Ometepe.

If you live abroad, have you ever been a mule? What are your most requested items? Unusual items?

23 thoughts on “On Being a Mule

  1. A Nicaraguan native living in the states.
    I’m a mule for my nicaraguan friends. I have taken for the last 35 years textbooks, surgical instruments, toys, everything you can name even chicken wire. Also brought toilet papers as well as medicine. Even at the airport checking counters I have to redistribute the content to get under the dreaded 50 lbs/bag. As long as there are certain shortages, I will continue to transport free of charge to my loving family and friends.

  2. Loved reading the comments here on what type of items expats ask you to “mule” back. When we lived in Granada I had a friend bring me back some good Chaco walking sandals after mine broke and I know many people who were asking for various electronic items. I had to laugh at the chili powder comment because a big bottle of Lawry’s is actually on my list for when we return to Portugal. It’s funny what becomes important from “home!” Anita

    • Anita, I remember that. I don’t know how I remember that, but it could have been from one of the forums? Haha. I forgot about the Lawry’s chili powder. I’ve returned to Nica with many of those bottles. OK, now I want to see your list for when you return to Portugal. I am curious.

  3. Comment to Ernesto: It happens more and more at MGA. If you can show a receipt or receipts for all the items you bring in and those receipts happen to be less than the limit per person (which I believe is still $750), then you are OK. You might have to do some quick talking in Spanish, but the receipts basically tell the story for you. The main thing is to make items look like they will not be used for resale.

  4. Besides the normal items that you listed, I actually brought a new ultra-efficient pool pump! It sailed through undamaged and works like a charm. The $4 pillows you can get at Wal~Mart or Target make excellent packing material and can be used afterwards.

    • You must have had a large suitcase. One of the hardest things for me is to keep the items under the 50 pound weight limit. That’s why I made a travel vest out of a Goodwill raincoat and sewed giant pockets into it. I can waddle through the airports with 40-50 pounds of books and other stuff and wear it onto the plane for free.

  5. Debbie, you are not alone, this is typical of my annual trips to the island. My bags are mostly filled with regalos since all my island clothes are already there and don’t need the bag space. Although I have curtailed my practice some since last year my bags were searched in Managua and I was made to pay a big customs’ fee on a solar pump I brought and some other gifts. I think the search is random and it had never happened to me. I understand they must protect their local industry. I am more careful now on what I bring. Did that ever happened to you in Managua? I also had to go back the following day to “retrieve” my stuff, loosing a hole day in Managua in the process.

    • Ernesto, my bags have never been searched in Managua and I have traveled through that airport many, many times. My bags have been lost and always returned to me in a day or two, but never searched. I must have one of those innocent faces…haha. I’ve heard horror stories about people bringing donations into Nicaragua and their donations have been held for ransom. One time, Veterinarians without Borders came to Ometepe Island to deliver meds and other needed things for animals. All of their refrigerated Penicillin was taken, their dried dog food ( because it looked suspicious, they said), and other medicines. They had all the paperwork in order, too. It makes me so angry.

  6. Wow!!!!!!
    that’s really sweet of you and I love it , I’m sure it’s the thing to do for everyone involved.
    Noticed the boxes , do u just check them , on the plane ,or do u send them ,,,,on the plane I’m guessing it would be pricey..?????
    Right now , I’m in Matagalpa , love the mountains here , had a few meetings re service work , and at few places other than that in regards to shooting destination weddings ,which I do..
    So all in all a great trip,,,
    Plan to go land searching near Granada in December tho, looking to build a cob house …off the grid….
    Going to see a cob house here tomorrow a dude from Spain built …
    Happy and safe travels back to your home.
    Heidi

    • Heidi, I take everything out of the boxes. If there are electronics, I carry them in my backpack as if they are mine. Once, I carried 3 Kindles and 2 laptops back with me. I kept my fingers crossed that they wouldn’t make me open my backpack and ask me about my need for 3 Kindles and two laptops. I put all the other items, like vitamins, food, and other non-electronic stuff in my suitcase. I stuff them in tennis shoes, roll them in clothes, and pack everything as tightly as possible. Believe me, I am getting very good at packing. If you ever need a mule when you move here, just let me know.🙂
      A cob house? Awesome. I can’t wait to see your plans.

  7. I have never been a mule, though, I’m sure my daughter feels like one! lol
    Most sought after items:
    good chili powder
    canadian poultry seasoning
    shampoo and cream rinse
    and most importantly … OCEAN’S TUNA!!!! The tuna here sux!

      • I’m so fussy too! Has to be the right chili powder and the right poultry seasoning. And damn if it doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge here. Had an open pack go moldy even though it was sealed closed. Stuff is like gold, was not impressed.

        Jajaja.

  8. When I traveled back and forth to the Caribbean, there were always clothes for the kids left behind, electronics, birthday and Christmas gifts to be taken down to the islands. On the return: delicious rum cake and benne balls (sesame candy), certain plants, rum, the hottest pepper sauce anywhere, and beautiful shells.

  9. Interesting story! I too had no idea that “mule” had other meanings, & I’m glad to hear I was wrong. It sounds interesting, & exhausting all at the same time. Thank you for enlightening so many of us!

  10. Oh, my. When I read your title, I was a bit startled. We only hear the word “mule” used to reference (ahem) illicit activities.

    When I lived in Liberia, the most important thing that was carried back and forth was mail. We tried to send camera film back to the States for developing, too, and were happy to get good film from the States. (My, how things have changed in that regard!) I do remember some airplane parts being personally delivered, and medical supplies. It’s interesting to remember all that.

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