Our Lives Abroad in the Idioms of Mind


This week marks the fifth anniversary of our retired lives on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua and the fourth anniversary of my blog. Attempting to explain what these past five years have been like for us, the origin of the word “anniversary” came to mind.

The word “anniversary” first appeared in English in the 13th century, and was based on the Latin word “anniversarius,” meaning “returning yearly” (from “annus,” year, plus “versus,” a turning). The first uses of “anniversary” were in the church, and “anniversary days” were usually dates with particular religious significance, e.g., the days of martyrdom of saints, etc. The use of “anniversary” for the yearly marking of any past occasion dates to a bit later, and such dates were previously known as “year-days” or “mind-days,” times when a notable occasion or person is “brought to mind.”

Mind-Day…I like that expression because looking back on our five years of living on a tropical island in the middle of a giant sweet sea, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America reminds me to always be grateful for every aspect of my life. Happy Mind-Day to us!


Our Lives Abroad in the Idioms of Mind

Mind Boggling
This was our life in luggage in September 2010. It took us five years to plan for our move, and the adventure had just begun the day we boarded the plane to take us to Managua.
My Life in Luggage.

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Who Says Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?


Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. ~ John F. Kennedy

My news feed is filled with political articles about building impenetrable fences and walls. Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall represents a very common sentiment among neighbors everywhere. “Good fences make good neighbors.” But, is this statement true?

Geography has made us neighbors to all the wandering cattle along our beach path. Living on a predominantly agricultural island, I have learned that fences here are built to keep the cattle, wandering pigs, and horses out…definitely not people. I prefer it that way.

I dislike impenetrable walls with electric fences and shards of sharp glass clinging to the tops of the walls like prisons. That’s one of the main reasons we chose to live in a rural area surrounded by gracious neighbors with whom we can share our lives.

I understand that human relationships need boundaries. Robert Frost’s poem is a metaphor for establishing one’s boundaries.  When boundaries are clear, human relationships prosper. But, we needed a new fence to keep out the cows who have no understanding of human nature.

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Economics has made us partners in building our fence.
Jose needed work, and we needed a strong young man to mix cement.

IMG_9114Even our youngest neighbor, Issac, pitched in to help us build our fence. That’s what good neighbors do in Nicaragua.

IMG_9110Necessity has made us allies in Nicaragua. Let’s face it. Without the help of our neighbors, we would be lost. I do not have a green thumb. Marina knows that. The other evening, Marina and her father planted flowers in my flower bed in front of our house. Early the next morning, Marina stretched her hose across our property line and watered the newly planted flowers…and they bloomed! That’s what a good neighbor does.  Continue reading

Guess Who Came to Dinner?


doctorsMarina was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease over two years ago. Her journey through this condition led her to a public healthcare surgeon in Managua, who removed her diseased thyroid in two operations a year apart. Gloria, her daughter, brought the diseased thyroid home in a plastic cup for all to see before taking it to a private clinic for a biopsy report.

I shook my head in disbelief.

What kind of pubic health system allows patients to bring a diseased body part home, then asks them to pay a private clinic for a biopsy report?

For Ron’s birthday, we decided to make a North American meal for 15 of our Nicaraguan friends and neighbors. Marina said, “My surgeon and his family are vacationing at my house for a week. Can they come, too?”

“Of course,” I replied. Again, I shook my head in disbelief.

Why would a surgeon want to spend his vacation in a humble abode of a patient instead of a fancy hotel? “Aren’t all doctors rich?” I asked Marina.

What I learned about the public healthcare system in Nicaragua will surprise you.

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Our Pretirement Experiment


“The goal of retirement is to live off your assets-not on them”
― Frank Eberhart

I have had many people ask me how we decided on retiring abroad and the process we went through. Although most of the information is in my unfinished book, Pretiring With the Monkey Lady, here is a preview of our serendipitous moments the first time we pre-retired in Nicaragua.

In 2004 we jumped. Trapped in new teaching jobs we hated, we felt as if our lives were bound tightly in Kudzu.  We bought a new home with a hefty mortgage and rented our old home. Our son was in his junior year of college. Finances were tight. How could we possibly escape from the bureaucracy that was strangling the life out of us? What was the alternative? Our gypsytoes were itching to travel.

Enter Bill, the eccentric entrepreneur from Nicaragua.  When an ice storm canceled school on a snowy January day, Bill sent us an email. “How would you like to live in Nicaragua and manage my youth hostel on Ometepe Island?”  We thought about it for three seconds and responded, “Yes!”

In an adrenalin rush, we made plans to finish the school year, sell the house we bought six months before, move everything back to our old house, and jump into a new life. We took out an equity loan to pay off the mortgage on our old house and had a small amount left to live on for a year in Nicaragua. Our son moved into our house, transferred to a closer university…and we jumped.

But, managing a youth hostel was not for us. You’ll have to read by book, Pretiring with the Monkey Lady, to understand the problems we encountered. Here is one chapter of the 25 chapters I’ve finished. California Dreams and a Scottish Cowboy. What was the alternative? We couldn’t return to the states because we sold our cars, gave away all our winter clothes, and were both unemployed. So, we jumped again.

Ron wandered the sandy beach paths in search of a cheap shack to rent. About two kilometers south of Moyogalpa, Ron found this little beach house and it was vacant. We found the landlady in Moyogalpa and rented it for $100 a month with a six month renewable contract.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life on Ometepe Island


 

The Weekly Photo Challenge is Street Life. Ometepe Island, Nicaragua is a rural, agricultural area with colorful street (or volcanic path) life. Join me on a trip into Moyogalpa with our favorite moto taxi driver.

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More street life ahead.Traffic jam ahead.

Expat Speed Bumps


“We could do it, you know.”
“What?”
“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.”
― Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Yesterday, we walked to Moyogalpa instead of taking our motorcycle. “Where’s your moto?” many people asked. “We need the exercise,” I lied. There is no way I’ll admit that I am afraid to get on the moto after taking another spill. Wait! Did I just say that I hit a speed bump in our expat life on la isla?

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More expat speed bumps. Keep reading!

Weekly Photo Challenge: One Window of Our Lives


The Weekly Photo Challenge is Window. They are portals into the world’s stories. Glimpses into other people’s lives. Looking out (or into) a window can tell you about where you are — and where you’re not — and mark a particular moment in time, linking you to a physical place. Join me as we peek into one window of our lives on Ometepe Island.

A Barbie doll pink house, a big ole’ cement pila, and a worn window signified the beginning of our quest for a simple and carefree lifestyle culturally immersed with friends and family on Ometepe Island.

IMG_2260When Ron destroyed the big ole’ cement pila our journey began.
knocking out a concrete sinkLight filtered through our window and the only thing we saw was the beauty of things to come.
IMG_2797We pretended we worked in a McDonald’s drive-through, happily dispensing peanut butter sandwiches to our workers through our window. They laughed, not having a clue what we were talking about. Later, we found our sandwiches stuffed in a hole of the Mango tree.
IMG_3080I thought retirement was supposed to be… welI…retiring. Instead, I sanded my soft hands to the bone refinishing the window shutters.
IMG_3118Look! We have a TV!  Steeler football games and a cold Tona after a hard day’s work. What more could we ask for?
IMG_3252As the house progressed, the garden grew. We harvested our first batch of tomatoes.
IMG_3919Then the mangoes began to drop…and drop…and drop. Delicious mango jam is on the menu.
Mango JamThe tropics require drinking lots of water. Ron, I caught you drinking out of the jug again. I won’t nag this time because he built us a pine trestle table in front of the window.
IMG_4044Ron’s table has served us well. Family and friends gather around our table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and even a game of spoons. The table nestled in front of the window houses my collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts and my lending library books.

My cupcake and cookie buddy and I often gather around the window where she displays her marvelous treats.

Life outside our window involves swinging, watching chickens, and making dough balls to trap rats in the garden.
IMG_0527We added a string of lights around the window for a festive look at Christmas.
IMG_1439Our window constantly changes scenes adding to our contentment on our little island of peace. One small portal of our lives, one giant step toward our dreams.
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Marina and Socialized Medicine in Nicaragua


IMG_5793Marina and her family have been our closest neighbors for ten years. We’ve watched her five children grow into loving, responsible adults. Throughout the years, all of her children and their families have lived with Marina at one time or another.  When Jose and his wife and three babies moved into Marina’s one bedroom shack, she just slapped some old tin on the side of the house and made herself a dirt floor bedroom. Every morning, her smoky cooking pot boiled with beans for her grand babies. Every afternoon, she hung the hand-washed bleached white cloth diapers on the barbed wire fence. She’s a hard worker and very proud of her family.
IMG_1441Two years ago, Marina began to complain of a lump in her neck. “Toce aqui,” (touch here) she’d say, while grabbing my fingers to make sure I touched in the right spot. “It hurts,” she complained. That was the beginning of my limited understanding of socialized health care in Nicaragua, and the things I’ve learned through Marina’s fight for equal health care.

1. I’ve learned that Nicaraguans depend on a three-tier health system that reflects the fundamental inequalities of their society. The wealthiest Nicaraguans use private health care, often going to Miami for specialized treatment. A small minority of privileged government workers are served by the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute. The rest of the population, about 90%, is poorly served at public hospitals, usually understaffed, mismanaged, and under equipped. Marina fits in the last tier and her journey has been an eye-opener, for me, into the world of socialized medicine in Nicaragua.
IMG_49772. I’ve learned that the patient can’t choose the doctor in Nicaragua. Marina was shuffled from one doctor to another. There’s little room for shopping around or for switching from one doctor to another when the bureaucrats have to “go by the book”.   She couldn’t afford to go to a private clinic. Her options were limited and so was her economic status.

3. The doctor can’t choose the patient. Under socialized medicine, there are few referrals made to another doctor. Marina needed a specialist, but it screwed up the system. Because medical services are free, demand for them goes up, patients are put on long waiting lists, and doctors quickly become overbooked and overworked. It took two long years before Marina received a specialist who was able to diagnose her problem.

4. The patient doesn’t get consoled or consulted. “Marina, what did the doctor say?” I would ask after every trip to Managua. “I don’t know,” she would always say. “He just gave me a slip of paper for another appointment. He doesn’t talk to me.” My understanding of the role of a healer is to always give comfort, support, and encouragement to a worried patient. This is not the case in a public hospital in Nicaragua. I’ve accompanied several local friends to public hospitals in Nicaragua, and it’s more like going to the Waffle House, where the doctors are short-order cooks, dispensing cheap aspirin in a cookie-cutter, uncompetitive state-run way.

5. The patient doesn’t get well. Marina suffered for two years waiting for an operation when the tumors growing on her thyroid could be removed. She was scheduled for her operation in December, but after a long, expensive trip to Managua, she was sent home with orders to return in January because the hospital was full of patients with Dengue. Don’t you think they could have saved her a costly trip with a simple phone call? The truth is, Nicaraguans go on long waiting lists all the time because the right equipment, or medicines, or doctors are not available when they need it the most. Thus, these patients become chronically sick as a direct result of the above four points.

The only consolation in Marina’s case, is that she received her operation this week…two years after her first symptoms. There won’t be a bill, and her loving family members are gathered around her, tending to her every need. She returned home yesterday, a day after her five hour delicate operation. Julio harvested our basil leaves and Gloria mixed  a refreshing tea bath of basil, alcohol, and warm water. When I walked into her house to give her a warm bowl of tapioca pudding and strong pain pills, her daughters surrounded her, pouring basil leaf tea all over her body. The warm water pooled over the dirt floor, while the girls tenderly bathed their mother and grandmother. Marina’s mother gently walked her to the outhouse, and the rest of the family members followed behind, hands holding hips, as the little train of compassion chugged to the outhouse. Touched by the compassion and loving care of their cherished mother, I tried to hold back my tears.

IMG_5506“There’s a story behind everything..but behind all your stories is always your mother’s story..because hers is where yours begins.”
― Mitch Albom, For One More Day

Observing the tender care Marina’s children bestowed upon her, I learned that our mothers’ stories are where ours begin. It takes courage and compassion to raise loving children. Marina is one of the most courageous people I know, therefore her children carry on her legacy.  It’s a shame that economic status determines the type of health care one receives in Nicaragua. Yet, knowing Marina and her children, I have no doubts that she will recover quickly.

Christmas Traditions…Bah Humbug?


“Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course.”
― Lemony Snicket, The Blank Book

I’m not one for holding too many traditions. We had a Christmas tree until Cory graduated from high school, then we ditched the live tree mainly because we ran out of room on our property to replant our Christmas trees.  My Christmas tree ornaments, which I so carefully bought over many years, are still stored in our garage in the states. Bah Humbug, some may say, but, honestly it simplified my life and I could concentrate on the really important aspects of the Christmas holidays like visiting family and friends and baking cookies.

Below is my Bah Humbug list of Christmas traditions we’ve discarded for a simpler life, or we have been forced to discard because we live on a tropical island far from the mainstream:

1. Presents: I used to make all my Christmas gifts. Each year I had a new theme: batik, gift baskets, homemade dog and cat biscuits, those little mason jars filled with layers of brownie mix or hot chocolate, homemade jams, Scherenschnitte pictures and frames,        which means paper cutting in German, watercolor paintings, and gift bags from our travels around the world. Now, I bake cookies and give them to all our friends and neighbors on Ometepe Island. It is a real treat because most of my friends don’t have ovens and ( if you can believe this) they have never eaten a chocolate chip cookie.

2. Shopping: I was never one for going to the malls in December, and I only attended one Black Friday event. The invention of internet shopping became my sole way to shop for Christmas presents. I love Amazon, but even that is something I can only dream about in Nicaragua. 

3. Decorating the house for Christmas: Oh, the collection of snowmen, those little ceramic Christmas trees, nativity scenes, wreaths, and hopelessly tangled Christmas lights and icicles I have given away in yard sales. This year, my 10-year-old friend, Lauren, made me a wreath to hang on my door out of Styrofoam cups. Since I wanted something a little twinkly to add beside the wreath, I took four used rum bottles, steamed the labels off, added some water, green and red food coloring, and set them on my porch railing beside the hanging wreath. It adds a festive touch to my entrance when the tropical sun shines through them. However, it confuses my hummingbirds. They’ve been buzzing around the red bottles with a puzzled and very determined look.

4. Christmas cards: I gave up that tradition long ago when the cost of a stamp was more than a small homemade gift. We don’t have mail delivery on the island, so that settles any thought of buying Christmas cards… which I’ve never seen here anyway.

5. Trips to see the Christmas lights: At the Bristol Motor Speedway, they have a fantastic collection of Christmas lights and scenes. What made it so cool was that we could drive our car around the speedway to see all the light displays. Now, very few homes have Christmas lights, and the ones that do are only lit up for a short period because 1. Electricity is expensive here 2. We don’t want to take our motorcycle out after dark because there are too many obstacles on the dirt paths and the few paved roads. 3. When electric demand is high, those who have the power ( literally) ration our usage. For example, there was a huge techno concert the other night. The surrounding towns were cut-off from electricity so the techno concert could go on without missing an eardrum shattering beat.
speedway in lights

Ometepe Island still maintains its simplified Christmas traditions. Here are a few.

Church is still very important. The Virgin Mary statue is paraded around town for La Purisma for the first eight days of December accompanied by loud firecrackers and pipe bombs.
IMG_0685Nativity scenes abound…but where is baby Jesus? Traditionally, the manger is empty until Christmas Eve, then baby Jesus is tenderly placed in the manger.
IMG_0684Traditional handmade gifts are given…twig brooms, arts and crafts, fans, hats to shade one from the tropical sun, cloth dolls, handmade baskets and toys, and always lots of fruits.
IMG_0681Nacatamales..the traditional midnight Christmas Eve dinner.
IMG_0786Beautiful Christmas cakes adorn special parties.
IMG_0712Gift giving is traditional, and the gifts are usually given at midnight on Christmas Eve, but they open their gifts in private because they don’t want to embarrass the humble gift giver. Below are some of the gifts we received this year…bread fruit, lots of watermelons, underwear, socks, jewelry, a Christmas wreath, and precious Pre-Columbian pottery that my friend, Mitchel, dug out of a construction site where he was working.

In return, I keep up one tradition…my annual Christmas cookies. It seems fitting to me to continue this tradition because homemade cookies are scarce in Nicaragua, and I love sharing a tradition I have held for many years with my island friends and neighbors.
IMG_0725I hope your holiday is overflowing with family, friends, and lots of sweet things this year.

Tonight is the Night


HHI on TV  2Although we won’t be able to watch our House Hunters International episode until we are in the states next week, we hope you can watch it. Enjoy the show, and if you find that you are really embarrassed for us, don’t tell us. LOL

I have lots of stories to tell. They are patiently waiting for me to hit the publish button on WordPress. Stay tuned for “Tito Crosses Over: The life of an illegal immigrant” and many other stories. I’m not sure how often I will be able to post during the month of November, meanwhile, enjoy the show.