The Honeymoon is Over


DSCN1264The honeymoon is definitely over! For several weeks, I’ve been out of sorts. I start a project, and frustratingly set it aside. It’s been a month of heavy rain, slow internet, lots of bugs, and a lack of professional services on our island.

I am anxious because our “adopted” dog has a cancerous tumor in his mouth, and the only vet on the island has 35 years of experience, but no professional training. In March, he “operated” on Canejo on top of our septic tank using an old hunting knife and a hot piece of rebar and cauterised the remains of the tumor. The tumor has grown back, and now it’s only a decision about when to put a stop to Canejo’s suffering.

DSCN1263Life has been a bucking bull ride lately. If you have lived abroad for over a year, I’m sure you can identify with my feelings. There are four common stages of cultural adjustment:
I. The Honeymoon
The wondrous initial period of euphoria and excitement…oh how I long for those days of mystery and surprise! I enjoy reading Holly’s blog about her first year of rebirth in Boquete, Panama. Let the Adventure Begin!  In this stage, one feels like he/she can conquer the world. It’s a superficial, tourist-like involvement with the host country, as well as intrigue with both similarities and differences between the new culture and the home culture. In this stage, one has lots of interest and motivation in learning and most importantly…an open-minded attitude.
DSCN1268II. Culture Shock
This is the stage where one feels like he/she is on a wild chicken bus ride though life. Every curve is fraught with danger, small issues become major catastrophes, and one easily becomes stressed-out, frustrated, and may feel helpless to solve the smallest problems. The focus is on the differences between the new culture and the home culture. Stereotypes and prejudices surface. Homesickness and missing family and friends sets in. In other words, the novelty of the new culture disappears in a cloud of fog, rain, or dust (depending on the season).

DSCN1265III. Gradual Adjustment
This is the stage in which one’s perceptions change, when one can hear the church bells toll…and enjoy them…and regain a sense of humor lost in the previous stage. Decisions are made to make the most of one’s experiences. Increased familiarity with the new culture, its logic and values enables one to feel safe, comfortable, and creative. This is a time of deeper understanding and questioning earlier assumptions about the world. Some parts of living abroad are actually better in one’s host country, than in the home country! It’s a time for revelations, changing perceptions, and evaluating a new way of life. Of course, there are highs and lows as adjustments take place gradually.

IV. Feeling at Home
One now appreciates certain aspects of the foreign culture and critiques other aspects. This is the stage of reality. There is no paradise on earth. One adapts and changes accordingly. This is home. One is no longer negatively affected by differences between the host and home cultures. Living and working to one’s full potential is the mantra. It is biculturalism at its best!

 Cultural Stress
Most people living in a foreign culture for an extended period experience cultural stress. I have to remind myself that it is normal to feel overwhelmed and frustrated at times. It is all part of the cultural learning process. We learn through our mistakes. Living abroad is a challenge in many areas: culture, language, values, customs, traditions, and logic.

Strategies for Dealing with Cultural Stress:
Listed below are several ways we have learned to deal with cultural stress. Just remember, it is completely normal. Where do I belong in the cultural adjustment stages? Since the stages tend to blend into one another, I am probably between stage 3 and 4. Most of the time, I’m happily adjusted with many expat and local friends. But, occasionally, I do have “those days”. I’m sure you know what I mean. 🙂

1. Make plans to stay in touch with family and friends
Now that we moved my woktenna for a stronger internet signal ( the trees grew a foot or more this rainy season and covered the woktenna!) I can easily keep my schedule of Skyping with my family every weekend.
2. Get into the expat bubble for a change. It depends on where you live, but we are culturally immersed in a small all Spanish-speaking community. Sometimes, I need to visit my expat friends just to regroup, speak English rapidly, and talk about things we have in common.
3. There are several internal supports. First, understand the stages of cultural adjustment, then analyze your situations and your reactions to those situations. Identify your “hot buttons” and ways to manage stress. Finally, identify new ways of thinking positively.
I always tell myself when I’m down that the worst thing that can happen is that I will die. Then, nothing really seems that bad.
4. Travel to a new and different place. It always works to help us get out of a rut. Next week we’re taking a short trip to the La Flor beach on the Pacific coast to watch turtles. Next month, we’re traveling back to the states to visit family. Next year, we are planning a long, 2 month trip to Ecuador and the Yasuni National Park.
5. Physical supports: We eat healthily. We have a thriving garden and 15 varieties of fruit trees on our property. We experiment with new recipes all the time. Our motto is everything in moderation..not too much of any one thing. We get plenty of exercise walking, kayaking, and swimming.
6. Volunteer in your host country. This has helped us tremendously because we formed close and lasting relationships with a variety of local people. Everyone has a talent or a skill to share with others.

I think I’m feeling better, now. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the stages of cultural adjustment. If you live abroad, what stage are you in?

 



 

The Expat Gathering


A gathering…a social affair…an assembly of unique expats convening together for the purpose of fellowship. That’s exactly what Theresa had in mind when she decided to start a monthly gathering of expats on Ometepe Island. Together we can share our hopes, dreams, plans, and projects.

Although our little island is only 22 miles long, with a population of 45,000 people, and about 150 expats, some parts of the island still lack electricity and many parts lack running water. New roads are slowly wrapping around the island, offering easier access to civilization. Yet, for all the progress in the past eight years, we rarely go to the other side of the island and seldom visit with friends beyond our expat internet group.

Theresa organized a pot luck for the end of October at the Cocibolca bar in Moyogalpa. I decorated name tags with orange pumpkins, Ron brought sweet potato cuttings, and we came together for our first, of many ( I hope ), expat gatherings.

What a gathering it was! I met engineers, educators, homeopathic doctors, pig farmers, butchers that make homemade sausages, herbalists, philanthropists, bed and breakfast owners, hotel owners, realtors, agricultural specialists, and retired volunteers. I was amazed by the talents of the expats living on the island…many of whom I had never met.

After introductions, we shared a delicious lunch, and made plans for our Thanksgiving gathering. Sorry to add that I didn’t take one picture of our Thanksgiving gathering. I must have been too busy making gravy and slicing turkey. 🙂 I’m looking forward to our December gathering. The weather is perfect, we are finally feeling almost normal after our bouts with illness, and life is good…for which I am very grateful.

Expat Extremophiles


In August, a U.S. expat chopped up his Nicaraguan translator and drinking buddy in Jinotega, Nicaragua. He stuffed Harley’s dismembered head and other assorted body parts in garbage bags and placed them on the curb for the garbage truck. When the police arrived, they found the confessed murderer calmly eating lunch and surfing the web. Basil Givner, 56, confessed, ” I couldn’t stand him anymore.” See article here.

I posted this article on Facebook because  I met this confessed murderer in Jinotega when we were visiting last September. He had just returned from the states and was staying at our hotel until he found another house to rent. He appeared to be friendly and talkative, which led me to wonder about the masks of sanity that some expats wear and why we become expats. One of my local friends commented,” This may slightly change the way some Nicaraguans treat their foreign neighbors, don’t you think?”

What do I think? I responded to my friend, “I’m more afraid of some of the expats in Nicaragua, than the Nicaraguans.” Are we all expat extremophiles? Extremophiles are microorganisms that live life on the edge. They are adaptable and flexible organisms, which have made extreme environments their home. Some are cunning escape artists, who through the process of natural selection, have adapted to incredible worlds of extreme hot or cold, radiation, darkness, or other harsh environments in which humans could never hope to survive. They had no choice: It was survival of the fittest.

As human beings, we like to think that we are flexible, adaptable, and capable of thriving in a variety of environments. As expat extremophiles, we do have choices. We consciously choose to expatriate and settle in environments very different from our former habitats. Like the microorganisms, we adapt to extreme changes in our environment. Unlike extremophiles, we can move on if things don’t meet our needs.

  • But, why do we choose to live life on the edge? Why have we left family, friends, security, and all comforts of familiarity to move to an alien environment that challenges us daily? We are not political refugees, although I know many expats who use the term to describe their reason for expatriation. Join the forums, NicaLiving or The Real Nicaragua, and you can find many political refugees wrapped in blankets of conspiracy theories.
  • We are not pedophiles. Walk the streets of Granada and you can find places nicknamed, “Pedophile Perch”, where old demented gringos lie in wait to buy young, underage Nicaraguan boys or girls. In their sick expat extremophile world, they believe they are helping to support an impoverished family. See recent arrest here.
  • We are not criminals or cult leaders, like Pierre Doris Maltese. We’ve never been arrested or convicted of money laundering, murder, or drug offenses. I got a couple of speeding tickets in my lifetime, but I don’t think that counts.
  • We aren’t trying to escape from a heinous past. We aren’t victims of our life experiences…nor are we bitter, jealous, or revengeful.  We are not alcoholics, or drug addicts. We don’t stumble through the streets of our local town disheveled and dirty,  looking for our next connection or our next fix.
  • We are not medical refugees…knock on wood! I know several expats who were forced to move to Central America because they were denied health insurance for pre-existing conditions. They found affordable health care here at a fraction of the cost in the states. I admire these expat extremophiles because they aren’t afraid to explore alternative health care in the form of herbal remedies and homeopathic care options.
  • We are not International Real Estate developers, like most of the International Living folks. We don’t buy ocean front properties for pennies, kick out the locals, and then hire them to be our maids and gardeners.
  • We don’t want to start a hostel or an eco-friendly resort, or develop programs in permaculture or a surf camp.
  • We are not Peace Corp, missionaries, or NGOs, another admirable type of expat extremophiles.
So, who are we? Why have we moved to Nicaragua? I don’t think we fit into a group of expat extremophiles. Not that it matters anyway. We just want to live comfortably, simply, and cheaply immersed in a new culture….one more adventurous journey around the sun…one day at a time.
I guess the closest we could come is to be categorized as economic refugees who thrive on challenges of growing a tropical garden, helping our neighbors and friends, and exploring the mysteries a new culture presents. We are just your normal expat extremophiles…and that is an oxymoron if I ever heard one.