Building Our Way to Hell?

“Excessive gentrification destroys the biodiversity and ecosystem of a community.” ― Khang Kijarro Nguyen

We are in the process of big renovations to our house: a new roof, drop ceilings, repainting, new electrical wiring…the works. It is long past due, however I wonder what our neighbors think? Are they upset or jealous or angry that we have the money for renovations to our house? Do they resent us because they live beside “rich” foreigners?  Will we be less accepted because we may be perceived as flaunting our “wealth”? Are we flaunting, taunting, or demonstrating that we are better people because we are not living in poverty? Do we want to live like Nicas?

The big bad G-word is gentrification. By definition it is the process of renovating and improving a house so that it conforms to middle-class taste, or since we live abroad…to gringo taste. Although gentrification is a term applied to urban areas, I believe extreme gentrification can be used to demonstrate “building our way to hell” all over the urban, rural, underdeveloped and developed world.

I don’t like the words extreme gentrification because it has a bad connotation. Instead, I prefer integration. The difference is that we have integrated into our all-Spanish speaking community. We have simply moved from one place to another. Extreme gentrification on the other hand, is kicking poor people out and replacing them with rich people.

Gentrification is happening, especially in the coastal towns and colonial cities in Nicaragua.   And some areas have experienced extreme gentrification. Some cities are suffering with growing tourism and no regulations for short-term rentals. Rent prices are completely unaffordable for the average Nicaraguan. Landlords are evicting people to start touristic businesses everyday, and land speculators are buying land for peanuts that has been in families for generations and then selling outrageously expensive housing compounds to foreigners forcing the local people to move to the outskirts of cities or towns.

Extreme gentrification is happening in cities all over the world. Take a look at some of the major cities throughout the world where the G-word is a bad word. “We are building our way to hell”: tales of gentrification around the world.

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Trickling Up: An Expat Economic Theory

The U.S. Trickle-Down economic theory sounds hopelessly pessimistic to me. The word “down” used as an adjective reflects negativity and is downright depressing. It defines a lower position ( Nicaragua has a down economy.), something unable to function (Our electricity is always down!), and someone who is sick. ( My neighbor is down with the flu.)

Therefore, with optimism and enthusiasm, I am going to attempt to explain my expat economic theory of Trickling Up. Just the word “up” sounds so much more encouraging, don’t you agree? If there is one thing I have learned while living in Nicaragua, it is to always be optimistic and encouraging, and lend a hand up when possible.

When we moved to Nicaragua, we received advice from everybody… from how to purify our water to how to bargain like a Nica. Some of the advice was well-received. Other advice, I couldn’t help but wonder about. For example, I was reprimanded by other expats for providing a free lunch for our workers, tipping too much at local restaurants, and paying too much for a taxi. They said, “You are driving up the cost of everything by paying gringo prices willingly.” Or, “The workers will expect the same treatment and pay from us, too.”

I look at it this way. Trickle-Down has never worked in impoverished countries because huge sums of money allocated to government officials never reach those who need it the most. What is wrong with reversing the system of aid by trickling up? The average Nicaraguan earns five dollars a day! Even in Nicaragua, that is well below a level of poverty that defies my understanding of how hard-working families exist.

Here’s an example of my trickling up theory. We are building an addition to our guest house. We hired Marvin to build a bathroom, dig a new septic tank, and add a new kitchen/living room area…nothing fancy…just small and comfortable for our guests. First, we had Marvin make a list of all the materials he would need and give us a list of the costs of materials. Then, we told Marvin that in the U.S., we usually figure labor costs based on the cost of materials. Labor is usually the same amount as the cost of the materials. The carefully prepared list of materials came to $2,000, so we told Marvin that we would pay him $2,000 for his labor. “That is not how we do it in Nicaragua,” Marvin honestly replied. “We charge $10 a day for the contractor and $5 a day for the helpers.” If we did it Marvin’s way, he and his helpers would make much less and take more time to complete the job.

We wrote up a contract, specifying the payments in six weekly installments. Marvin orders the materials with our approval and we pay the bill at the local hardware store. It is a win-win situation for all of the families. Marvin will have enough money to buy more tools and supplies for his business, and meet the needs of his growing family. His son and another friend are his helpers. Marvin can decide how much of a percentage to pay them and knowing Marvin, he will be generous with his percentage.

Marvin and his crew

Trickling up is a fair and sound economic system for expats. We can live comfortably on our retirement savings because the cost of living in Nicaragua is about 1/4 of the cost of living in the states. Our money goes a lot farther here, so why not invest in the future of Nicaragua? Trickling up makes sense to me! With a simple system of accountability and fairness in good labor practices, everybody is happy.

The Grand Opening of the Pollo Grill

The Pollo Grill

“Una fuego,” Marina shouted over the fence this evening. (A fire) “Yes,” I shouted back.  “Finally.” I’ve begged for a barbecue for over a year. Guillermo was supposed to build me a barbecue, but he never did. So, when Wilmer came out to the house two weeks ago looking for work, I hired him on the spot to build me a barbeque.

We tore apart my brick living room set. I know everyone was happy about that. Last year, I made a darling little brick couch, chair, and coffee table with the leftover bricks from the construction of our houses. I’ve never heard the end of the kidding, but I enjoyed my little outdoor living room. It held up well under the deluge of rain. We found lots of scorpions hiding in the cracks. I wondered what they would taste like barbecued.

Wilmer worked steadily for three days, then he went on a drinking binge last weekend. Always optimistic, I waited four more days for him to return to finish the job…and sure enough, he did. I think he needed money for his next binge. Regardless, the barbecue was finished.

This morning, a chicken laid an egg under my barbecue table, which led Ron to build three nesting boxes for the hens under the table. Congrejo, Marina’s dog, sneaked into the nest on the ground and gulped down the old egg decoy Ron placed in the nest so the hens would know where to lay their eggs. Next time we fire up the grill, hopefully we’ll have fresh eggs to fry. I love a dual purpose barbecue!

Ron built a metal grill out of old purlin, and we were ready to fire up the new pollo grill. To christen our new barbecue, we bought a big hunk of Filet Mignon at the new Maxi Pali in Rivas when we returned from the beach on Wednesday. Fortunately, my friend Billy caught the thief who stole my Filet Mignon on the launcha. He set the bag of meat on the floor of the launcha, turned around to find a seat, and the bag was gone! A little old lady had taken my bag of meat! She was hiding in the corner of the launcha and surrendered the meat peacefully, if not somewhat sheepishly.

The Filet of Mignon was grilled to perfection. We celebrated the christening of the new pollo grill with a fine feast. Maybe tomorrow, we’ll have a grilled omelet if the hens decide to pay forward Ron’s kindness for building them a secure nesting spot!