Rewiring and Reclaiming

One man’s distraction is another man’s refuge. ~Khang Kijarro Nguyen


Oh Ometepe! Do I miss you? Not really. I have always said I have a love/hate relationship with Nicaragua. I am in the hate phase…not because of the people, instead because of the Ortega regime. I abhor what they have done to the people. But, this post isn’t about Nicaragua. It is about how distractions and a crisis in Nicaragua helped to save our lives.

Ron felt a lump in his neck last February. Friends and professionals said it was nothing to worry about. It was palpable and soft. But, they cautioned us to get it checked anyway. We waited under a mango tree on Ometepe Island, avoiding the hot sun, to see the technician who had an ultrasound machine. He discovered two lumps, one the size of a grape, and the other the size of a pea which was deeper in the tissue of his neck.

Again, he said it was nothing to worry about, but recommended a biopsy. So, we ferried to the mainland the next day for a fine needle aspiration of the largest lump in his neck.

When the results were ready, we were unable to go to Rivas because the paramilitary had blocked the roads and they were shooting up the town. So, we asked Robinson to call the doctor and if it was cancer, just don’t call us back.

Minutes later Robinson called us and said Ron was good to go. The results were benign, however the doctor recommended surgery to remove the lump because it could turn into cancer in 10 years or less. It was diagnosed as a pleomorphic adenoma of the salivary gland.

Relieved that Ron’s tumor was benign, yet still stressed from the gunfire we heard late at night on the street behind our house, we debated on whether to stay or leave Nicaragua. If we left, we could go to the states and have the tumors removed. It was impossible to travel to Managua because the paramilitaries were shooting, kidnapping, imprisoning, and killing protesters. It took two more months to pack, give away our belongings, and find trustworthy renters who would adopt our pets and love our home. On July 19th, we left Nicaragua on one-way tickets and returned to our home in the states.

We forgot how beautiful our area was. The Nolichucky River beckoned Ron for a few abundant fishing days, and because our home in Tennessee was rented to our friends, we decided to make an appointment with the Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor to have his tumors removed, buy a car, drive to Canada for a couple of months, return to TN and have the tumors removed, and plan a six month trip to warm places for the winter. 

Little did we realize that “Winter was Coming” in more ways than one…and beyond our control.

Again, Ron’s tumors were biopsied and the results were both benign. The ENT surgeon removed the tumors and sent them to pathology. Meanwhile, we were staying in a small bedroom in our house while Ron recovered from his surgery and I planned our six month trip to warm places in tropical zones.

The week before we were to leave, the doctor called. “You need to have a PET scan as soon as possible.” OMG! Frantic with worry, we knew the news could not be good. The pathology report returned with a diagnosis of HPV+ squamish cell carcinoma. The glands that were removed were the secondary source of the cancer. The PET scan would determine if the cancer had spread to other parts of his body, locate the primary source, and tell the doctors the next course of action.

We entered Cancerlandia…. it was a mystifying, stressful, anxious, and fearful world. We would rather be whale watching in the Dominican Republic.

 We were living in crisis mode. The stress was overwhelming with the anguish of 3 more surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy which was the recommended standard treatment for HPV positive throat cancer according to the American health-care system. The turmoil of the many choices we had to make, and the false hopes such as three benign biopsy results, were almost too much to bear. We fluctuated between periods of happiness and despair, gratefulness and the curse of hope, spiritualism and faithlessness in a religious world, and anger accompanied by bouts of grief. We had to rewire to survive. Yet, how? 

The radiation oncologist wouldn’t start radiation until Ron had all of his teeth pulled. The chemotherapy oncologist would’t start chemo until Ron had a port and a stomach tube embedded into his body. The ENT surgeon had to find the primary source of cancer at the base of his tongue before treatment could start. Everyone wanted a piece of him and we were led like zombies from one office to the next, wondering how much this would cost.

Our salvation actually came in a gallon of Tropical Nut paint. Since we were going to be spending the winter in our house, it disheartened us to see the paint chipped off the walls and ceilings and blankets covering the skylights and doorways to save heating costs. It resembled a dark, cold cave. I couldn’t imagine Ron trying to recuperate in such a depressing environment.

The day after he had all of his teeth pulled, we started scraping the walls of the hallway closest to our little bedroom and repainting. Little by little we were reclaiming our house and our space….and it felt so good!

Our friends moved into his mother’s basement until home sales increased, which would probably be spring. Throughout the daily radiation treatments and three chemo treatments scheduled two weeks apart, we dreamed of complimentary paint colors, watched YouTube videos on how to repair peeling ceilings, and woke up excited to take our daily walks in Lowes and buy more painting supplies.

The snow fell and we were blissfully unaware of the cold. Ron started toasty fires in the wood stove in the basement. Our distractions of painting, remodeling, decorating, and unpacking our belongings that we stored in our house for eight years were life-saving. Our lives didn’t revolve around cancer.

We tore down the blankets covering the sky lights and heavy dark curtains on the windows. Let there be light… symbolic of the tunnel we were traveling through…we could see light pouring in at the end of the treatments.

Cory took family leave from Yosemite National Park. He brought another fantastic distraction, a sour dough starter from 1890. He taught me how to make a delicious sour dough bread that we could share with the nurses and doctors who tended to Ron’s every cancer need.

By mid February, Ron’s treatments were over. The doctors and nurses declared him their star patient. He was in a clinical trial to reduce the painful side effects of the radiation. He received weekly infusions to prevent the throat sores and mucus build-up from the radiation. It was a roaring success. He was the only person in the trial in our area who had no side effects from the radiation…no mouth sores…no trouble swallowing…no throat pain!

Our remodeling was almost done, too! The downstairs was painted and redecorated. the boxes were lovingly unpacked and our treasures were placed around our home. Transformed from a house to our home, we were both proud of how well we handled the stress and demands of the cancer treatments. As the doctors have repeatedly stated, “This is not only the standard treatment for your cancer, but it is the cure.”

What is next? We are not sure where our paths will lead us. Ron has several months of recovery. Meanwhile, we have many miles to go before we rest. We would both like to explore Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Greece, Prague, Montevideo, and Albania this fall.

However, I learned to buy travel insurance for those unexpected emergencies, like Ron’s cancer. Travelex was better than my expectations. I spent two months planning our winter trip, and a month canceling our reservations and verifying our refunds, but we received all of our money back down to the penny.

I want to thank everyone for your concern and comments since I have not been posting. Please know that I appreciate you! My focus has been on helping Ron through the maze in Cancerlandia.

Our lives have changed drastically since last April. But, throughout all the stress and changes, we have both remained optimistic and are looking forward to new paths in our rewired lives…with a little help from our distractions, passions, and friends. 🙂

Next up:

Comparing cost of living in Nicaragua and USA
Will we return to Nicaragua?
The cost of Cancer in the USA



Reverse Culture Shock

“When you travel overseas, the locals see you as a foreigner, and when you return, you see the locals as foreigners.”
Robert Black

“Reverse culture shock is the emotional and psychological distress suffered by some people when they return home after a several years overseas. This can result in unexpected difficulty in readjusting to the culture and values of the home country, now that the previously familiar has become unfamiliar.”

I wouldn’t say I am distressed, but it certainly is different from life on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.

You know you have reverse culture shock when…

1. There are an overwhelming number of choices

I am lost and bewildered when I enter a grocery store. Yesterday, I stood in front of the canned baked beans and cried…10 different types of baked beans? In Nicaragua, it was always fun to shop; I never knew what unexpected treasure hidden among the shelves I would find. Dill pickles, pretzels, and dark chocolate were treats. Now, with too many choices, it is more of a frustrating experience.

2. The leaves change color!

Oh how I love fall! In Nicaragua the leaves crumble and fall off the trees without changing colors. The gorgeous displays of the Maple leaves are eye-popping.

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The Nicaraguan Evolution Continues: Basta Ya!

“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

63 dead, 15 still missing, many injured
I’ve written regular updates to my family and friends on Facebook and others have asked me to share them. So, below, I share my personal reflections on what is happening in Nicaragua.

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Tigre, Argentina: Where the River is Always at Your Door

“But just as the river is always at the door, so is the world always outside. And it is in the world that we have to live.”
― Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor

It is a rainy day in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which gives me an opportunity to relax from the tourist mode and write about one of our recent adventures, the Delta of Tigre.

Getting to Tigre from Buenos Aires was an adventure itself. Transferring from the green line subway to the blue line subway to the train during rush hour was an experience in which we not only survived, but thrived! With over one million commuters daily, we were jammed and packed like sardines into the subways and train. It reminded us of the chicken buses in Nicaragua, except the train had air conditioning! Good thing we went heavy on the deodorant. All I could see above me were armpits!

An hour and a half later, we arrived in Tigre ready to board the vintage mahogany commuter boat bus to explore miles and miles of interconnecting streams, rivers, and channels through the delta.

Tigre is the starting point to the Paraná Delta. Once home to jaguars, or tigers, the charming waterways are lined with spas, hotels, restaurants, mansions, and thriving water communities. The river is always at the door.

We have always preferred to explore on our own, and found the local Interisleña boat buses, which truly function like buses, dropping off and picking up people along the numerous waterways in the Delta. For $15 rt for both, we could hop on and off to our wandering delight. It sure beat the crowded and expensive tourist ferries and catamarans that only travel on the large rivers and drop off tourists at the most expensive restaurants on the river.

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What People Miss and Don’t Miss when Leaving Nicaragua

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter how much, how often, or how closely you keep an eye on things because you can’t control it. Sometimes things and people just go. Just like that.”
― Cecelia Ahern

My good friend, Sharon, is leaving Nicaragua. I am torn with feelings of sadness for me and joy for her. We met in 2004 in Granada, when Granada only had a few expats…all characters! There was stinky Steve, the transgender airplane pilot, and pedophile perch. Bobby had a guest house and Bill had the only hostel in town, Hospedaje Central. There were only a handful of restaurants and tourists trickled through town.

Those were the days! Yet, I understand that most things are out of my control and sometimes people just go. I am going to miss her tremendously. I’ll miss her wit and humor. We laughed a lot when we were together. I’ll miss her adventurous spirit and her insightful thoughts, kindness, and helpfulness. Yet, I know that we will see each other again. I am already planning our summer trip to Canada.

If you wonder, like me, what people miss and don’t miss when they leave Nicaragua, Sharon explains it all with humor and understanding. Enjoy her read!

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Stranger Things in Nicaragua

“This is the strangest life I have ever known.” ― Jim Morrison

I recently binged on the Netflix series Stranger Things and it reminded me of the stranger things I’ve seen in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the land of quirky! We lovingly refer to Nicaragua as the land of the not quite right. If you enjoy belly laughs and giggles at daily life, you will love living in Nicaragua because some days, You just gotta laugh.

As you can see, I fit right into the funky Nicaraguan lifestyle. Join me for a photo essay of Stranger Things I’ve seen in Nicaragua.

It all started when I purchased a coffee maker at MaxiPali. There were two coffee makers left on the shelf. One was a black five cup coffee maker, the other a ten cup white coffee maker. Other than the size, both were identical in their functions and brand. However, the black five cup coffee maker was 150 more cordobas than the larger white one. When I asked why, the clerk responded, “I am surprised that you don’t know that all black appliances are more expensive.” Hmmm…

If you are wondering why the license plate is sitting in front of the coffee maker, we had to buy a placa or plate for our motorcycle. We waited six years for the government to make license plates! Yes, six years! The strange thing about Nicaraguan license plates is that they don’t come with predrilled holes to screw the plate to the motorcycle. We had to drill the holes ourselves. Who does that?

Stranger Modes of Transportation

One day, the rodeo came to town. There are a variety of wacky rides for the kids, and you can also get your picture taken on a giant plastic horse. This was a tough move for the owner of the horse because he had to bring it from the mainland on the ferry. Imagine our surprise watching the rigamortised horse lifted off the ferry.

Our school kids ride chicken buses to school, and sometimes they ride motorcycles.

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Playing Possum

Animals, even plants, lie to each other all the time, and we could restrict the research to them, putting off the real truth about ourselves for the several centuries we need to catch our breath. What is it that enables certain flowers to resemble nubile insects, or opossums to play dead, or female fireflies to change the code of their flashes in order to attract, and then eat, males of a different species?
— Lewis Thomas


Ron yelled into the house, “Debbie! Come quickly and bring your camera.” When I arrived at the corner of our fenced property, I asked, “What am I looking for?” Jose, our yard worker said it was a giant rat called El Zorro.

“Oh, there it is,” I pointed. It looked kind of like a tiny kangaroo frantically trying to find a hole in our fence so it could make a quick escape from our prying eyes.

It was a cute intruder with big brown eyes and tiny hands that could grasp the chicken wire fence to inspect for holes.  It had a long tail, similar to a giant rat, and two large white spots above its eyes. But, I had no idea what it was.
After some research, I concluded that it was a Brown Four-eyed Opossum. Now it made sense why it looked like a tiny kangaroo because it is a pouchless  marsupial. Jose said they used to be very common on Ometepe, but now they are endangered.

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Love Your Country or Leave It?

“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
― Mark Twain

Usually one of the first questions I am asked about being an expat besides the “What do you do in Nicaragua?” or “Are you a missionary?” is “Why did you leave America?”

My response is that I never left America. I am still here. I live in Central America. If that doesn’t piss them off, then I could say that I am a political refugee from the Divided States of America. But, I never say that because first, it is a lie, and second, I love my homeland and I really don’t like to create tension or controversy unless it is a last resort. I am a mediator at heart, I seek peace.

So, when angry people respond to me in a political discussion, “Love it, or leave it!” what is the appropriate response? Why is it that expats are seen as less patriotic than those who stayed in their home country? Can expats be patriotic? If so, how?

Photo credit to Larry Wilkinson

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Weekly Photo Challenge: What Are You Waiting For?

“For a while” is a phrase whose length can’t be measured. At least by the person who’s waiting.” ― Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

The Weekly Photo Challenge is Waiting. 

We do a lot of waiting in Nicaragua. Right now, I am waiting for my eye to heal and there is an epidemic of pink eye on the island, so I am quarantined in my house until the epidemic is over.

We remain in readiness for the next eruption of our active volcano, Concepcion. The last time she awoke was in 2010.

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What’s in an Expat Fridge?

“Drink from the cup of life, you will be fulfilled.
drink from the milk container in the fridge,
and your wife will make you wish that you had drunk from the cup of life.”
― Anthony T. Hincks

I am on a housesitter’s forum on Facebook because it helps me get contacts for good housesitters. Also, as a homeowner, we sometimes get trashed on these sites because housesitters complain that our homes are too dirty, or our fridges are full of rotten, moldy food, or our pillows are too soft or too hard, etc. Sometimes I feel like I have to defend the homeowners.

A housesitter posted a list of questions she asked prospective owners. Most of the questions were reasonable like, “How many pets do you have? Are they up-to-date on their vaccinations? Is the closest town within walking distance?”

But then I read this, “Post a photo of the inside of your refrigerator.”

Hmmm…So I asked why. And she responded,

It’s something we ask after getting surprised one too many times with refrigerators not sanitary in any way, shape, or form. We’re not looking to see what you have per say, as much as the condition you keep your fridge because we’ve found that to be a good indicator as to how clean you keep your home as well. It really sucks when the first thing you have to do upon arrival to a home is spending 4-6 hours cleaning the fridge just to make sure you don’t get food poisoning. Not to mention, quite often the rest of the home is just as dirty. And we aren’t there to be your house cleaners. After experiencing three like that in a row, we now ask to see what the fridge looks like. 

I thanked her for her response and checked her off my list as a potential housesitter.

Although this post isn’t about housesitters, I became curious to know what is inside expat fridges because they do represent a different way of eating and storing food, especially in the tropics.

So, here is a picture of what’s inside my fridge. Notice, it is clean, no rotten food, no mold, nothing that would cause food poisoning. Although, I have to admit that were notorious for keeping some moldy leftovers in our fridge in the states.  But, living on a tropical island has changed our fridge contents and our respect for food drastically. Let me explain why.

1. Sanitary conditions

 Living in the tropics, nothing is sacred to the infestation of bugs that swarm annually. Everything must be sealed tightly and even then, the tiny insects can always find a way to ruin your prized pumpernickel bread you found at La Colonia. All perishables go into the fridge or freezer.

Currently we have an infestation of tiny book lice. Fortunately they don’t like my food, but they are building nests inside my Kindle. ( And yes, they are really called book lice! ) Their only entrance is through my charger hole, so I had to find a way to deter them. After shaking hundreds of tiny book lice gently out the charger hole, I discovered that a drop of neem oil around the charger hole keeps them at bay.

Things rot quickly in the tropics. We experimented keeping our tomatoes out of the fridge or inside. They rotted within two days outside the fridge, and stayed rock hard inside the fridge. Nicaragua doesn’t have a good selection of tomatoes anyway, so we chose to refrigerate them so they would last longer.

All fruit is either refrigerated, processed and frozen, or canned. We freeze mangoes, water apples, Jackfruit, and Suriname cherries from our trees and bushes. We used to make mango jam and salsa and can it, but unless we started at 4 am, the day was too hot to keep the water boiling on the stove for canning.

Milk comes in cardboard containers and when we open it, the container goes into the fridge. We keep our eggs in the fridge, too. I know that is not custom here, but if we don’t put them in the fridge, we need a safe spot so our kitties won’t swipe them onto the floor. They are little rascals like that!  Continue reading