We Must Be Living in a Vortex!

“I hate to say this,” said my attorney as we sat down at the Merry-Go-Round Bar on the second balcony, “but this place is getting to me. I think I’m getting the Fear.””Nonsense,” I said. “We came here to find the American Dream, and now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit.” I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. “You must realize,” I said, “that we’ve found the main nerve.””I know,” he said. “That’s what gives me the Fear.”

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chapter 6, A Night on the Town…p. 47-48

I think I’m getting the Fear. Last night there was a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in northern Nicaragua, near the border of El Salvador. My cat, Queenie, tried to warn me. I’ve heard that animals are sensitive to movements of the earth. Queenie was exceptionally persistent in rubbing against me and kneading my belly. I thought she just wanted fed.

“What’s wrong with you tonight?” I asked as she dug her sharp claws into my stomach. “Do you miss your brother, Black Jack?”

Earthquake ahead!

Does Death Become You as an Expat?

              “None of us are getting out of here alive.” ~ R. Alan Woods

IMG_5748If you are an expat or consider becoming an expat, I’ve written an article called, Does Death Become You as an Expat? for the Nicaragua Dispatch. With an increasingly older population of expats retiring in Nicaragua, planning for an emergency or possible death abroad is vital.

I have a friend who had to return to the United States because palliative care was not an option in Nicaragua. I’d like to network with a hospice program that provides hospice or palliative care abroad. If you are familiar with a program and have information on how to start one in Nicaragua, please let me know. Let’s help to make death dignified and compassionate abroad. After all, none of us are getting out of here alive. :-)

Other articles I’ve written:
Marina and Socialized Medicine In Nicaragua
Helplessly Mute: A Trip to the Dentist
Expats and Obamacare for Los Idiotas
Health Care for Expats in Nicaragua
No Family Left Behind

Our Mini-Super Morphed into Mega!

“It’s easy for Americans to forget that the food they eat doesn’t magically appear on a supermarket shelf.” – Christopher Dodd, American Politician

Our Mini-Super grocery store has changed gradually throughout the four years we’ve lived permanently on Ometepe Island. Guillermo tends to the needs and wants of tourists…meaning we could always find a few spices or Quaker Oats hidden among the bags of rice or the piles of eggs precariously perched in a corner of the store.

But, two weeks ago, our Mini-Super transformed into a Mega Store. It was a magical sight! I was mesmerized by the choices, awed by the shiny wide aisles, and overwhelmed with the selection of shampoos and wine.

Read on.More pics of our Mega Store ahead.

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?



Battling Bugs

Chayules…swarms streaming…clusters congregating…gnats gathering…masses mobbing
My house is overflowing…jam-packed…filled to the rafters…overrun with chayules.
To complicate matters, we haven’t had any running water for two days now.

This is the price of paradise. Living lakeside creates some challenges: Chayules are my number one challenge. Two times a year, when the wind shifts and blows from the lake, millions of chayules hatch. They live for 3 days and cover every surface. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is out-of-bounds.

They are relatively harmless little gnats if you don’t mind breathing, eating, and sleeping with them. Lacking running water, the rinse water for my dishes is now a swimming pool of gnats. I had chayule flavored coffee this morning, as I picked them out of my ears and nose. Unable to cook, I ate sandwiches on the beach yesterday. Oddly, they weren’t swarming on the beach…only in our houses.

My neighbor’s kids spent the day at the beach. They helped me gather trash that had washed ashore. We played and bathed in the lake. Marina started a fire on the beach and cooked rice. It was a pleasant afternoon, as long as we stayed out of our houses.

But, when darkness blanketed our beach community and we turned on the lights in our homes, the chayules were unforgiving. Fans swirled the gnats like little tornadoes. A whispering buzz filled our homes, warning us of an impending attack. Babies cried. My cats swatted the gnats relentlessly. There was no escape until the lights went out.

At seven o’clock in the evening, La Paloma was dark. We all sought refuge under our mosquito nets ( those of us who have mosquito nets). When I awoke this morning, all was eerily quiet. Mountains of dead chayules dotted the floors. Carcasses clung to the walls and spiderwebs like curtains.

It’s time for the leaf blower. Living on the beach is challenging at times. Yet, I’m determined to make the best of it. We’re going to invest in a water tank and a pump. It’s easier for me to deal with the chayule attack than to live without running water.

You are probably wondering why we continue to live here. Honestly, the challenges of third world living have made me a better person. I’m more flexible and less stressed… more giving and less greedy…more tolerant and less unforgiving. The intangible qualities of life attract me. Soothing…speculative…mythical qualities. Sometimes it’s like living in a fairy tale.

Well, back to reality. It’s leaf blower time! Maybe today we’ll have a dribble of water. The price of paradise. Is it worth it? You betcha!

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.

My Top Tips for Living Abroad

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

I’ve met many foreigners living in Nicaragua with ‘escapism mentalities’. I’ve found that it is impossible to escape from one’s troubles by moving abroad. They are bound to catch up with you, no matter where you are living. Carefully consider your motivations when relocating for the long haul. Pedophiles, cults, and those on the run from the law are NOT welcomed in Nicaragua or anywhere in the world.

Sure, we all want to move to a tropical island, but before you jump, do the research. If you’ve never traveled abroad, how do you know where you want to live? Ron and I traveled the world for 15 summers searching for our ideal retirement spot. We narrowed our search to two countries: Brazil and Portugal, and Central America. We joined chat groups, visited expats, talked to locals, and explored the culture of each area. Make a list of your  needs, ask specific questions, and be ready to scratch the countries from your list if they don’t meet your needs.

Once you’ve chosen a place abroad…jump temporarily. The first time we moved to Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, we quit our secure jobs, sold our cars, gave away all our winter clothes, and left our house and our aging pets with our son. In an adrenalin rush, we jumped into a new life for a year. I call it our grand experiment with ‘pretirement’. We knew two Spanish words, ‘si’ and ‘no’. Yet, if we would have spent the time planning for our retirement and learning Spanish, I doubt that we would have ever had the nerve to jump. Living abroad could have been a distant dream, instead of a mysterious reality. Throughout our year of ‘pretirement’, we learned everything we needed to know to return to the states and set goals for our real retirement on Ometepe Island. A few words of caution: Don’t burn any bridges. Life is unpredictable. It can change in a minute. Leave your options open.

In our experiment with ‘pretirement’, we lived like Nicas. We rented a little beach shack that contained four plastic chairs and one plastic table, two beds, and a two-burner cook-top. The only difference between us and our neighbors was that we had a refrigerator and a flush toilet. Spartan living was fine for a year, but when we returned and bought our little beach shack, I wanted a comfortable, yet simple nest. We remodeled our shack to blend in with our surrounding environment…nothing fancy because crimes of opportunity are abundant between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. We have a huge year-round garden that supplies us with all of our vegetables, 14 varieties of mature fruit trees, and all the comforts of home. Comfort and practicality are my mantras.

You ain’t in Kansas anymore! Your way isn’t the only way! You are a guest in a foreign country. Be respectful. Lose the negativity. Learn the language. Integrate and immerse yourself in your new surroundings. Volunteer in your area of ability without being overbearing and arrogant. Get to know your local neighbors. Life is so much more enjoyable once you lose the tude.

Life is not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard expats say, ” You can’t trust any of ‘em. Keep everything locked up, buy a gun, and never let a local come into your house.”  I’m not naïve. I understand that bad things happen everywhere in the world. Yet, I refuse to live in paranoia and fear and lock myself away from the culture in some gated gringo community. As I’m writing this, our 2-year-old neighbor is napping on my couch, while his uncle is sitting at our kitchen table practicing his English with Ron. I want to live humanely and compassionately in Nicaragua. I would trust my life with our closest neighbors and I know they feel the same way. Sometimes I just don’t understand why so much energy is expended fighting our cultural differences, instead of cherishing our human similarities.

Be forgiving and loving with yourself. In learning to speak Spanish, I have made many embarrassing mistakes. For example, once I bought bread stuffed with pineapple for our construction workers. Instead of asking them if they wanted bread with pineapple, I asked them if they wanted bread stuffed with penis. I’ve wished people a happy new anus, instead of a happy new year. We all had a good laugh, and they helped me correct my Spanish. Practice patience. Life moves at a different pace. If someone says they are going to come to your house at 2 o’clock, they may arrive at 4 o’clock, or maybe not until the next day. It’s best to learn to live in the moment and avoid expectations of the future. Easier said, than done. :-)

Ron and I are on our way back to the states for two weeks. We are in the process of applying for our residency in Nicaragua. I’ll try to post about our experiences throughout the application process. It’s bound to be another adventure! Stay tuned and please be patient with me.

Cultural Ignorance: A Rant

Warning: This post contains a culturally ignorant comment. The comment has abusive language, so be forewarned.

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” ~ Mark Twain

One of my first posts on my blog was, “You Know You’re a Gringa When…” It contained a list of comical things I encountered when I was living on Ometepe Island six years ago. My blog was less than a week old. The digital ink was probably still wet and I was lucky to have two hits a day.

So, when I opened the administrator’s page and noticed a comment from a reader, I was thrilled. It was my first comment waiting patiently for me to approve.

Comment: author: Bingo
Blow me … you know your an asshole when you write a list like this … sorry gringos dont live in squalor and enjoy the finer things in life like warm water, trash removal, and proper sewage systems … FUCK YOU

I stared at the comment, unable to understand what caused Bingo to write such a hateful response to a total stranger. After my initial shock, I composed an email to Bingo questioning his anger and sincerely wanting to know what set him off about my post. But, Bingo’s email address: blowmeasshole@fuckingidiot.com was a fake.

The IP address of the computer, from which Bingo’s comment was sent, was below the fake email. Clicking on the IP address took me to Roadrunner’s Corporate Headquarters. I discovered that Bingo worked as a clerk in a Roadrunner store in W. Virginia.The IP identified the exact Roadrunner store. By this time, my compassion for culturally ignorant people had disappeared, so I sent a copy of Bingo’s comment to the Roadrunner Headquarters along with a note that said, ” You may want to have a little chat with Bingo. Maybe cultural diversity and tolerance seminars should be included in training sessions for your employees, along with the appropriate use of work computers. Thank you for your consideration.”

I encounter cultural ignorance again and again, but not from everyone. When meeting new people or replying to articles, usually from Yahoo, I now very quickly divide them into one of two groups. One is the type of person that makes these kind of wild comments: “I am an American, love it or leave it.”  (I am tempted to respond, “I live in America, too. Nicaragua is in Central America.”) or “Isn’t there a war going on there?”  (For which I reply, ” Buddy, you are about 20 years behind the times.”) or “You should be ashamed of yourself! Your pension should be denied because you are not living in the United States.” ( I wonder, “Why should I be ashamed? I paid my dues in the USA  by teaching your culturally ignorant children for 25 years. I tried my best to instill cultural compassion in your children, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”)

These are not the “mouth shut” kind of people. Their ignorance of foreign cultures and insensitive statements spreads hatred throughout the world like a Swine flu epidemic.( which, by the way, we are experiencing in Nicaragua.) I’m not saying cultural ignorance is a bad thing. Even with the internet, where we can reach out to the world and describe our daily lives in a foreign culture, there is way too much diversity for any one person to grasp even the basic knowledge of every culture in the world. That’s why I write my blog. That’s why you respond with questions about our lives in Nicaragua.

I believe that it is impossible to fully understand a foreign culture without being immersed in it for a couple of years. I’ve been in Nicaragua for eight years and I still don’t fully understand the culture. So, I guess we are all doomed to be culturally ignorant. At best, we must make an attempt to explore cultural diversity with eyes without borders. We must cultivate an attitude of tolerance and accept the fact that we don’t know everything…our knowledge is limited.That attitude comprises the people in the other group…all of my compassionate, curious, and tolerant followers of my blog. Thank you for being a part of my life.

I can accept cultural ignorance. What I can’t accept is intolerance, stereotypes, bigotry, extreme nationalism, and hatred. Back to Bingo’s comment… why the hatred? Is it deep-seated jealousy? Is it fear? Is it an attitude of extreme nationalism that has crippled the great United States of America? Quien sabe?

It depresses me to think that the people of the world will never fully understand one another. It may not matter to most people, but it matters to me. That’s why I write…that’s how I live…everyday trying to understand a bit more. My friend, Bill ( We moved to Nicaragua because he needed someone to manage his youth hostel on Ometepe Island.) used to tell me, “We’re all here because we’re not all there. You will know you have arrived when you don’t perceive litter as a bad thing.” I guess I’m getting closer to ‘being there’ because I can overlook most of the litter. When it gets intolerable, then I take my plastic bag to the beach and pick it up. I don’t know if I will ever fully ‘arrive’. That’s a universal question, one that I don’t have time to think about now. There’s still too much litter in the world.




Love Without Limits: Health Care in Nicaragua

Vivian Pellas Metropolitano Hospital

The first question on future expats’ minds is always health care. In order to explain Vivian Pellas hospital in Managua, Nicaragua, it starts with a love story written by Blanco Mareno in 1999. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss health care for expats. Today….the love story.

The life of Vivian Pellas, a survivor of the ill-fated TAN-SAHSA Airlines Flight 414, October 21, 1989 in Las Mesitas, Honduras, is a story of love and solidarity without limits. She is a persevering woman, a humble philanthropist, simple, with a beauty in the soul that is reflected in her saintlike face and a smile that is a balm for the burnt children of Nicaragua, who see in her their guardian angel.

That is the impression I got when I heard her talk with optimism about her great project of a Burn Hospital for Central America in Managua, Nicaragua. Sitting there with a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, behind and seemingly protecting her, nobody could say that she had suffered the ordeal of burns and 62 fractures in her face and body.

Vivian and her husband Carlos Pellas are two of just nine survivors of the worst accident in Central American aviation history where 139 people died amid the horror of fire and smoke.

She has wasted no time in searching for explanations or lamenting. She believes that the same light that led her out of that fiery inferno is the same light that leads her on with the Burnt Children’s Association.

Her indefatigable work to repeat her miracle in the little ones that have been burned, seeking help even from her sickbed, and even dancing again for the noble cause, was acknowledged with the “Servitor Pacis” Award from the Sendero de Paz Foundation that is presided by Archbishop Renato Martino, head of the Permanent Observation Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Nuncio in New York.

“This prize gives support to the project of turning tears into smiles, which is the Hospital for the Burned in Central America,” she says with joy reflected in her eyes.

Continue reading


Marina makes Cajeta de Coco...a two day process


            I was a master at multitasking.  The dishwasher removed water spots from my stemmed wine goblets, while the timed cycle of whirling machines gently cleaned and fluffed my clothes.  I chatted online and talked on the cell phone while the Cable TV broadcast the evening news, the CD player frantically burned downloaded data, and the DVD recorded my favorite reality shows.  Dinner thawed in the microwave, coffee brewed, the central air hummed with authoritarian control, while my toilet sanitized, and Glade deodorized my sterile environment.  Everything in my life was compacted, scheduled, pasteurized, automated, and thoughtlessly predictable and reliable.

Then, we moved to Ometepe Island, in the middle of a lake, in the middle of Nicaragua, in the middle of Central America surrounded by poverty, desperation, and scarcity of modern conveniences.  My lifestyle has changed drastically.  I hadn’t really given much thought to the concept of multitasking until we mowed our lawn yesterday.  What would have taken us an hour to mow using a powered lawnmower, generally takes a week with a machete.       But wait…there’s more…