2005 - Should we stay or should we go? By now Amy and I had visited many countries and had a good feel for the respective costs of living. Due to moving several times throughout our careers my present company would provide a very small pension and social security benefits were still six years in the future. Amy’s occupation would provide no pension payments in the future. The easy way would be to work until I was 65 but it would be more difficult to then move out of the country and we are presently in good health. When we last checked, we only have one life and we did not want to spend it all in the corporate life. We had good jobs and many friends but we would always wonder what we were missing if we did not take the risk and the opportunity soon. We decided the jobs were a means but not an end. With that decision behind us, we had to select a country. Due to my income being reduced to less than 10% and Amy’s going to zero, we must find a low cost of living and there must be opportunity for investment or a business to start. And of course, we must like the country and the people. Preferably, it would not be so far away that we could not return in an emergency. The potential countries were Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador. Costa Rica was eliminated due to cost of living and opportunities for pensionados. Uruguay was tempting since it is similar to European standards yet with the lowest cost of living but it was too far away for Amy. Ecuador simply had too many unknowns. We decided to begin visiting Panama and Nicaragua more earnestly. The Boquete area in the mountains of northern Panama was absolutely beautiful with a constant temperature in the 70s. Housing was not cheap but the cost of living was low. It was a good final place to retire but with few business opportunities. We were not yet ready for the rocking chairs on the front porch. We began concentrating on Nicaragua. 2006 January - Which Country? We visit Nicaragua for the third time. We enjoy the time with natives and expatriates and make the decision to move to Nicaragua. The business opportunities seem very good and we may be able to make money on buying and selling real estate. The development is mostly along the Pacific coastal areas but if the heat and humidity becomes oppressive we can always live in the mountains. We buy some land and some income property then pray the political environment remains stable. There is no profit without risk and there is a land rush along the coastal areas as gringos invest in developing areas. Elections are in November and the Sandanista party is presently in the lead. There are good reasons for the past and present existence of the Sandinista party and the reader would be advised to review the history of Nicaragua if not of all Central America before condemning their popularity. Unfortunately socialism does not view private ownership of land as part of their overall platform. The decision is made. 2006 June We decide to visit Nicaragua one more time to ensure we have all of our ducks in a row. We found a very inexpensive flight from Charlotte to Liberia, Costa Rica which is just an hour’s drive from the Nicaraguan border. It is not an easy trip. Just before our flight approaches Liberia a small plane crashes on the one small runway. Our flight is diverted to San Jose where we sit in the airport for several hours. Apparently the crash has damaged the runway strip and repairs must be made. Eventually we board again then land late afternoon in Liberia. Our luck is better than the previous small plane since we land safely but it is too late to drive to Nicaragua. We take a taxi to the same hotel we plan to stay at upon our return trip to the states. Unfortunately they have no rooms but direct us to another hotel in Liberia that does have a vacancy. The room is Spartan but adequate. In the morning we take a taxi to the Nicaraguan border station that takes a little over an hour through the Costa Rican countryside. The taxi can not take us though the border so drops us off. We are swarmed by older and younger people offering some kind of service to get us through the border. We are overwhelmed by the people trying to grab our bags and help us. It turns out you must fill out a customs form then walk several hundred yards through a “no man’s land” to the Nicaragua border station where your papers are checked then you can enter Nicaragua. We selected one of the swarms of people, paid them $5 and miraculously, they were able to get us to the front of the long lines, carry our bags across the “no man’s land” and deliver us to another taxi. There are at least three reasons for this difficult experience and the apparent lack of love between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. First, Nicaragua is much poorer than Costa Rica and many Costa Ricans believe Nicaraguans take many of their jobs since they will work for lower wages. Hmmmm….. where have we heard that before? Second, many Costa Ricans argue the border dispute between the countries because Nicaragua has most of the San Juan river which could become the site for the next canal similar to the Panama Canal. Third, the contras, other troops and supporting air bases fighting the Sandanistas were based both in Honduras and Costa Rican during the war in the 1980s. Even though we plan to take six to 12 months to learn the culture and language of Nicaragua, we do decide to begin our new life in San Juan del Sur (SJDS). Rents are going up quickly so we decide to purchase a small home. It should be no problem to sell it if we decide to move elsewhere. SJDS is a small fishing village of over 15,000 people located on the southern Pacific coastline near the Costa Rican border. It is very popular with the Nicaraguans for holidays and vacations but it is also popular with the surfers that come from around the world for the world class surfing beaches. The area was greatly discovered, at least by the outside world, by some of the surfers that decided to make SJDS their home. SJDS and Granada are the two locations in Nicaragua most favored by gringos and where the land speculation rush first began. SJDS is not large being smaller than a 10 X 10 block grid located on a beautiful crescent bay surrounded by cliffs that soar hundreds of feet above the waters. The hills over the water are dotted with homes on lots that four years ago could be purchased for less than $25,000 but now command up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Depending on placement, many can see the majestic coastline of Costa Rica to the south. SJDS, itself, is a curious mix of native and gringo businesses. The most common native business is called a pulperia which, depending on the success of the owner, may sell a few household goods up to a fairly large inventory. It is the equivalent of our 7-11 or gas station convenience store. There may be four to six pulperias per block and this is common in every Nicaraguan city we have visited. Our house is the typical Nica construction being built on a concrete slab with concrete walls. It even had a concrete sink behind the house. You don’t easily move concrete objects. There is a view of the bay several hundred meters away where I envision pulling in massive amounts of unknown species of fish. There are two good-sized bedrooms with two large bathrooms, a small kitchen and a living area. The lot is large enough to build another home or swimming pool but definitely needs a garage with a storage area. Surprisingly, there is a great deal of landscaping already completed. Lawnmowers do not exist here since cheap labor with machetes is readily available. There are no closets or hot water but it is satisfactory for us. The house is located about a mile outside of SJDS on a road that will be rough during the rainy season. There are four other houses near us and the area is called Little Bavaria. It is more than adequate and can be expanded at a later date if we wish. We put a bid on the house and there are counter offers but we reach agreement. Fortunately we signed the contract just before someone offered a higher bid. Sounds like the good old U.S.A. Buying property is a cash deal in Nicaragua since there is virtually no financing available. This makes it more difficult to purchase but at least it keeps out the speculators that just put 10% down. It is now time to go back and cut our ties in the U.S. It won’t be easy since we have many co-workers, friends and family that we sincerely like but we know we would regret not following our hearts. If we fail in Nicaragua we’ll live in a cardboard box or in a sister’s closet. 2006 August Amy is creating an inventory of our DVDs and VHS tapes. We know that movies will be a valuable commodity in Nicaragua and invaluable for swapping with friends there. We discover we only have one James Bond DVD. We could never leave the country without the complete collection of James Bond movies so all moving plans are put on hold until this crisis can be diverted. EBay to the rescue! I spend most of the night on the Internet looking for an inexpensive collection. I finally found a Chinese collection that is around $50 for all 20 films. The ad states they will be the same as the originals but there will be no time to return them if we are unsatisfied. You never make just one purchase on EBay. So……. I also buy two sets of 50 DVDs each of the Oscar winners for the past 50 years. I’m a little nervous that everything will arrive speaking Chinese with English subtitles. Learning Spanish in Nicaragua watching a Chinese speaking movie could be a challenge. A week later the DVDs arrive and they are exactly like the originals. Thank goodness for other countries not following our copyright laws. 2006 Friday September 1 It is the last day of receiving a paycheck and there is some temptation to change our minds. The past week has been full of dinners with friends and drinks with associates. It is like the days just before your wedding. Lot of good times but with the constant, nagging thought of “What in the hell am I doing? Or Don’t worry, there is still time to stop this train!” Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the train could no longer be stopped. Many of our friends think we’re crazy and a few hope they can do something similar someday, though how many would pick Nicaragua? Several remark to us that we can do this only because we have no children but it does not sound convincing even to them. Es verdad is a common Spanish response meaning it is true or you got that right! We were fortunate to have so many friends socially and at our workplaces. Now this was making it difficult to leave. My corner office on the 23rd floor in downtown Charlotte had already been cleared out in the past week. The only purpose for the last day was ensuring I said goodbye to everyone and especially those I worked most closely with. The company had been very successful for the past 15 years and much of it was due to efforts of its employees. The amount of effort to handle the multiple acquisitions was almost overwhelming. As such, many friendships and relationships of mutual respect had emerged from the chaos. The informal organization was truly more prominent as a result. My leaving would have positive results since it would start the domino effect for several people to rise within the organization and sets the stage for some much needed new thinking. My group arranged for some food and drink to be available and most of the morning is spent talking with old and newer friends. Some co-workers from other floors just want to find out why on earth we would make such a move. I will especially miss everyone in my group but also the monthly group luncheons with the delicious dishes from home; weekend golf with the guys; the funny things that just happen at work; the emailed jokes; the creation of unique solutions to work issues and the camaraderie created by harassing the corporate groups that seem to have no idea of how business works. I’ll even miss them. It is now time to leave the corporate world forever for the last time. One last handshake or hug with everyone. Lord, please don’t let these people read my obituary someday outlining my career then ending with a statement of how it all ended in a homeless shelter in Chicago. 2006 Saturday September 2 Reality sets in. We’re going to freaking Nicaragua. For months we have planned to spend a week with each side of the family. A week will be spent in Illinois visiting the Bushnell family then a week in northern Wisconsin visiting the Sopinski side. Today we must pickup a rental truck and pack it with all of the things we will give or return to members of the family. This includes family heirlooms such as Mom’s china closet, my grandfather’s gold watch and most of Amy’s paintings. A difficult task is breaking up my dragon collection. I had collected dragons most of my life and many of them came from our international travels. The collection included a jade tortoise dragon from Beijing, a dragon chest made of Tibetan yak bone, a wooden dragon ship from southern China and many other unusual pieces. Most of the dragons would be given to nieces, nephews and friends. What a shame but they could not be shipped to Nicaragua. Time to pick up the rental truck but there was a heavy rain last night and our truck is under water. The rental place tells us to come back later in the morning when the water has receded back to the river. A few hours later we pick up the truck. The remainder of the day is spent packing the truck. 2006 Sunday September 3 We get a late start but finally start the drive to Yorkville, Illinois. Driving the truck was not as bad as I thought it would be. With the gas prices near $3.00 a gallon I envisioned outrageous gas mileage but it was not that bad. The biggest problem driving a large truck is that there is no rear view mirror. You know how you keep flipping the light switch in the dark when you have no power? It is the same thing. I keep looking in the rear view mirror even though it does not exist. It is a beautiful drive through western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and a bit of Ohio. As we look at the country side we again wonder why we could not have settled for a cheap location in Tennessee or Kentucky instead of Nicaragua. We get all of the way to southern Indiana before stopping for the night. Since we know we must learn to live on less than $25 per day for several years we decide to stay at the inexpensive Deluxe Hotel. The office is dark and is apparently the living quarters for the owner. The sign on the road states there is a vacancy but the office sign states no vacancy. I ring the office bell and feel this is exactly like the start of several horror films I had seen. I wait calmly for the proprietor to come out and hack me to death then go after my wife. The good news is that my company insurance still covers me for 30 days. He seems confused whether he has a vacancy or not but finally decides that since the key to room #7 is there, it must be available. Apparently this guy did not graduate from Harvard. Still, he owns the hotel so he is ahead of me in some respect. The room is pretty nasty but it is $30 for the night. It is so nasty I decide to keep my shoes on and not sure if I want my bare skin to touch the bed sheets. We again think of Nicaragua and wonder if this is the life we have coming up. 2006 Monday September 4 We arrive in Yorkville around 1:00 PM. For five days we have some of the most beautiful weather Illinois can offer. Good times are spent with Dad and the family. Nephews and nieces have grown up so much and changed quite a bit. We had timed this trip to be there during the Sandwich County Fair which starts on Wednesday. This annual fair is held in Sandwich, Illinois about 10 miles from Yorkville and is what I consider probably the best fair in the U.S. though not quite as large as the North Carolina State Fair. On Wednesday we go with the adults to see all of the exhibits then return on Thursday with the kids to ride the rides and play games. Like at most fairs, we eat a lot of unusual and incompatible food that can not be resisted. The fair is still as good as when I was a kid. The rest of the week is spent playing golf, cards and visiting relatives. On Friday morning my sister and I take our niece to the medical center for an endoscopy. Since she is studying for the medical field she is more aware of what is going on. I enjoy being there because the tests come back negative and it is so much fun speaking to someone that has just come out of anesthesia. They think they are speaking normally even when their responses take 20 seconds and they really have no idea what they are saying. A good hour is spent messing with her mind. Friday night is the last night with my family though we hope to be able to visit again as much as we had in the past. Later Friday we pick up a rental car for the drive to northern Wisconsin and leave Saturday morning. 2006 Saturday September 9 We arrive in Minocqua, Wisconsin where Amy’s Dad lives. Again, we have the most beautiful weather and her entire family has gathered to see us. Sunday is Amy’s birthday and her Dad has arranged a three hour boat tour with the family as a gift. This, of course, evokes memories of Gilligan’s Island that started with a three hour tour. Northern Wisconsin has thousands of lakes and many of them are inter-connected. The guide takes us out on a pontoon boat through three or four of the lakes pointing out various points of interest or related history. Bald eagles are everywhere, swooping down for fish or just soaring in the sky high overhead. The rest of the week is spent playing horseshoes, catching up on family news and fishing. One evening, Amy’s dad and I go out for bass and quickly catch our limit. We are then shown how to filet the fish in preparation for cooking. This is a skill I hope I will need in Nicaragua. One morning I went out early to fish and a large pike or muskie follows my lure into the shallow water and strikes. Unfortunately he leaps into the air, laughs at me then snaps the line. Another fish story no one really believes but it was quite a thrill. After a week of good times we drive to Minneapolis to catch our flight back to Charlotte. 2006 Saturday, September 16 Pack, pack, pack. Even though we don’t think we are shipping much to Nicaragua, the number of boxes continues to grow. We had sold our townhouse furnished but even just taking some clothes, CDs, kitchen utensils and some computer gear, the number of boxes is now over 100. We had planned on renting a 6 X 12 trailer to pull behind the Jeep to drive to Miami where everything would be loaded on a ship. At the last second we decide to instead purchase a trailer since we would have little storage in our new home. We could use it to pick up purchased furniture and just park it in our yard for additional storage. It is the day before our departure and I know nothing about purchasing a trailer. Internet to the rescue for quickly learning the expected prices and available sizes. I quickly find there are no used trailers in the Charlotte area. I find a trailer sales place in Mooresville which is about 30 miles away. Racing there I find a red one on sale though we must remove the Jeep’s spare tire to hitch the trailer. The paperwork takes a while since there must be a title just like for a vehicle. I don’t have time for this. My drive home is made easier by my experience with the rental truck since the rearview mirror is now useless with a large trailer behind me. Passing cars is a new experience since my vehicle is effectively now over 25 feet long. Arriving home I now need to learn how to back up a trailer which is no mean trick. After several tries I’m now backed up to the townhouse garage. The rest of the day past midnight is spent packing the trailer and everything just barely fits. Every box is labeled with our names and a sequential number. This number corresponds with an inventory list we must provide to the US and Nicaraguan customs. What are we going to do with all of this stuff in our new, small home in San Juan del Sur? But it is all we will have in a new country. 2006 Tuesday September 19 We are dead tired but the carpet cleaners for the new owner arrive early and we must remove our final things. Our shipped goods will not arrive in Nicaragua for several weeks and we must pack bags to live out of for that period of time. Even though it will be way over our weight limit for the flight we decide we will take our DVDs with us since we had heard many stories of DVDs and other items mysteriously disappearing going through customs. With over 300 DVDs the weight is considerable. We had previously removed all of them from their jewel cases and loaded them into CD carriers. These carriers are loaded into our carry on bags. How will we be able to carry these bags to the airport in Miami? We finally are finished packing but don’t want to leave our beautiful townhouse even though it is no longer ours. We say our final goodbyes to neighbors and pull out. We have one final meeting with our financial advisor to sign necessary papers. It will be difficult in the future to get money transferred to Nicaragua. We stop at a bank and get some cash to make it through the next few weeks. We leave Charlotte at 2:00 PM and make it to Savannah, Georgia. We call the Miami shipping expediter to warn her we will be there tomorrow. 2006 Wednesday September 20 Florida is a long state and pulling a full trailer takes my complete concentration. Veering even a small distance allows the heavy trailer’s momentum to take control. My respect for truck drivers increases immensely. We arrive in Miami during the late afternoon at a hotel recommended to be near the shipping location. We collapse in bed and again wonder why we are doing this. Corporate life was not always the most fulfilling but it certainly was easier. An appointment is made with the shipper for the following morning. 2006 Thursday September 21 The shipper is a Nicaraguan woman with great contacts and much experience. We had contacted the traditional shippers but they wanted up to $15,000 to ship our goods and then they would not put them through customs at the other end. Again, Internet to the rescue. I contacted people in Nicaragua that might have suggestions. One importer in Bluefields, Nicaragua took pity on us and provided his shipper though we would have to get the goods and vehicle to Miami. Regardless of the shipper, we knew the risks of getting everything through customs. The shipper expediter, Gladys, sends her son to our hotel to direct us to the ship loading area. We arrive in a location filled with huge shipping containers. Ships normally are loaded with containers that are 8’ x 8’ x 40’ but can also be loaded with the ones you see on 18 wheel trucks that measure approximately 7’ x 7’ x 20’. Gladys and her packers are waiting for us. She is sitting on a chair frame with a toilet seat attached to it and it is surprisingly comfortable. We think this is probably the last time we will see our household goods. They are able to drive the Jeep directly into a container. Due to the wheelbase of the trailer, it can not be loaded into the trailer but we find later they are able to lift the trailer onto the ship without unpacking it. The shipping area is fascinating and is a beehive of activity. Huge loaders lift the packed containers into stacks then eventually move them by truck to the ship. The ship will leave the following Wednesday and take 10 days to arrive in Bluefields, Nicaragua. After being released by customs, everything will be loaded on a barge for delivery by river to Rama in the interior of Nicaragua. The Jeep and trailer will then be driven to Managua where we will take possession. Sounds easy but it takes two days of paperwork in Miami. Since we now only have our bags, we purchased our flight tickets for departure. We will leave the following morning. At the last minute we discover we can leave some of our bags in the Jeep so we cut our load in half since we decide we do not need as many clothes immediately as first thought. 2006 Saturday September 23 Left USA at 10 AM and arrived at Managua, Nicaragua 11:30 AM CST. Everything in Nicaragua has three prices: the highest for tourists, the next higher for gringos and the lowest for natives. We don’t look, speak or dress like natives. After meeting with a land developer we decide to go directly to San Juan del Sur by taxi which is a two hour drive. We’re not ready for the hassles of buses. Arrived at the Hotel Isabella in SJDS in the late afternoon and we find we will be there for a few days. 2006 Monday September 25 Our friend, Pedro, takes us to our new home. Surprisingly it is much nicer than we had remembered. No water but we thought it had not been turned on. It turns out that five of the adjacent homes share a well and someone had stolen the well pump in the past few days. Since there is a water storage tank, it would be several days before you would realize no new water was being pumped in. It does not matter since there is no electricity anyway. Everyday the electricity goes off from approximately 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM and many other times. We are told that this is because of the coming presidential election November 5 th. Apparently the Sandanista party controls the utilities and has arranged for the frequent power outages to demonstrate that if their candidate wins, there will be constant and reliable electricity. Twisted logic but that is what we are told. We spend a hot and humid night sleeping on an inflatable mattress. 2006 Tuesday September 26 Now that we have power we discover the air conditioner and the refrigerator do not work. I decide to walk into town which is just over one mile though I must ford a small river that runs into the ocean. My mind wanders as I remember people back at work complaining about it being too cool in the office sometimes. In SJDS I made many visits and worked on little things like turning on water (comes from a neighbor), paying water bills, electrical bills and checking on the status of our expected residency papers. There are no key makers in San Juan del Sur so a friend takes our only set to a town around 20 miles away to have duplicates made. We are told there is a good chance the new keys will actually work and most of them did. Residency is very important or we will have to leave the country within 30 days. Normally you are expected to apply for a one year residency several times then eventually apply for a five year residency. The process was started several months ago by paying an expediter (former immigrations officer) under the table to make arrangements for a five year residency. We have to supply copies of passports, birth certificates, marriage certificates, statements from South Carolina police department we were not criminals and doctor statements of being in good health. The residency would need to be completed to stay in Nicaragua and to get our arriving goods out of customs. It would also establish us as pensionados meaning we could bring in up to $10,000 of goods and up to $10,000 value of a vehicle. Our goods arrive in two weeks so everything must be perfecto. The final part of residency requirements is to prove we will have a guaranteed income of $400 per month. Friends tell me that there is only one person in San Juan del Sur able to work on refrigerators and air conditioners. It takes me a while to find his house even though I’m told it is easy to recognize since the front of the house is covered with old refrigerators. There are not many street addresses in Nicaragua. Usually they refer to a nearby landmark or known building with a typical address being 1 ½ blocks from the post office, San Juan del Sur, Rivas. I find Victor Ruiz at home which is quite a feat but he can not help today or anytime there is no power which is a substantial part of the day. I thank him and walk back home fording the river once again. We clean the house as much as possible and spend another hot and humid night on the floor. 2006 Wednesday September 27 Walked into town again to set up a local bank account. (two people must vouch they have known me for 3 years and since I had only arrived a week ago, this took a few minutes to accomplish). Tried to get Victor Ruiz to go to our house to fix the refrigerator or air conditioner but no luck since he is very busy. 2006 Thursday September 28 The well water pump has been replaced but with no power there is still no water. With no refrigeration or water we decide to give up for now and move back to the hotel. With the costs so far and the amount of money we have, we estimate we can make it for three months then will have to move to a sister’s closet. This diary looks rather negative in review which is not totally correct. We very much like the house and the view is marvelous. When there is a breeze it is very pleasant. Some mosquitoes come out at dusk but only remain for a few minutes. At night we can see stars, galaxies and nebulas we could never see back home. The sky is so clear that we can see white swaths of stars like broad ribbons crossing the night. In the morning and again at night, swarms of screaming green parrots dart over our house. We have seen no monkeys but can hear some of the howling at night. The bay can be seen about 400 meters in front of us but we have not yet tried the trails to it through the dense underbrush. Having a working toilet, shower and air conditioner provides a refreshing night at the hotel. 2006 Friday September 29 We were scheduled to attend a two week Spanish immersion class in Esteli which is located in the mountains about five hours northwest of San Juan del Sur. Since a friend offered a ride to Managua where we could catch a bus to Esteli we decided to leave two days earlier and just hope to find a place to stay. Our friend took us to the wrong bus station so we had to cross to the other part of Managua. There are well over a million souls in Managua so this was no easy task. Our luck holds and we arrive just as a bus is preparing to leave. The bus is packed and of course, we are the only gringos and then only with a level of Spanish language roughly equivalent to a two year old. We were able to find a seat and we sat back to just enjoy the experience. Other than the somewhat more luxurious Tica buses that connect the major cities of Central America the Nicaraguan buses are rather unique. Many of them are retired school buses from the USA but regardless of the origin, the drivers take great pride in maintaining them. Often, the same driver drives the same bus over the same route. For instance, we met a bus driver in Esteli that drove every day from Esteli to Managua then in the afternoon, drives from Managua to Esteli. Many of the windows are tinted a red hue so we are able to view the passing world through rose-colored windows. Often the buses are painted in bright colors or they’re still the common school bus yellow we all know but with the former school name painted over. Interior colors can also be very bright but always, the interiors are clean. The seats tend to be small since they were designed for school children. It is a Friday evening around 4:00 and many passengers are leaving the capital city to return to their homes in northern Nicaragua so there is standing room only. Some have bags similar to duffel bags, some have backpacks and many have bags of vegetables of various types. Everyone is tired but no one seems grumpy. Even as the bus is pulling away, vendors jump on to try to sell us water, various pastries, unknown meat dishes, candy and who knows what else. They constantly yell the names of the wares they are selling but we have no idea what they are saying. As the bus picks up speed the vendors jump off. Seeing a 70 year old woman balancing a basket of goods on her head jumping off an accelerating bus without a stunt double is quite an experience. We think we are on an express bus that should arrive in Esteli in approximately two hours but eventually we discover we are on the local bus and the journey is 3 ½ hours. Add to this the fact that we have no idea where Esteli is. There are no overhead signs declaring the approach of a town and the bus driver assumes you know where you are going. Still, being a gringo, I ask in Spanglish when we will arrive in Esteli and the reply is six. I hope he means six minutes but after an hour, assume he means six stops then eventually hopes he does not mean six hours but we firmly believe by then that we would be in the country of Honduras. The border checkpoint would at least then indicate we had missed our stop. Some of the stops are interesting such as one where there seemed only to be a fruit and vegetable market. The bus stops while passengers go out and buy whatever they need. The overhead racks quickly fill up with various kinds of organic matter little of which we can recognize. During the trip I spoke to a young woman who informed me she was going to Esteli. Hallelujah, we can just get off when she gets off! A few stops later she begins pulling down her bags so we begin preparing for departure. Alas, she gets off at a small bus stop in the middle of nowhere so she either did not understand me or was saying anything to get the old gringo to stop talking to her. It is now 7:30 and getting dark outside. We’re absolutely sure for the fifth time that the next stop is Esteli. It is a Shell gas station but most of the passengers get off as do we. During the trip we had called the Spanish school several times to inform them that we were almost at Esteli. After a while they weren’t even sure we were in Nicaragua and we were also starting to have doubts. We called the Spanish school again that we had finally and truly arrived. They asked where we were since there were multiple bus stops in Esteli. The school director’s son was sent to retrieve us and surprisingly he arrived on foot. Fortunately the school was only two blocks away. Even though we had arrived two days early our new family agreed to take us into their home that night. After a short walk of four blocks we entered our home for the next two weeks. I had tried to prepare Amy for anything, such as a concrete block one-room home, shared bathroom, meals consisting of just day old bread, etc. As often happens, I was completely wrong. The home was a very clean, 5 bedroom home and the upstairs was completely ours. We had a small living area with TV and refrigerator, a small bedroom and a private shower. Not bad for $10 a night that included three meals a day. Even though it was after 8:00 PM, a great meal was prepared for us. With a cool breeze wafting over us, we quickly fell asleep. 2006 Saturday September 30 We woke to the sounds of hundreds of roosters crowing. Even with growing up on a farm I had never heard so many cock-a-doodle-doos and certainly not with a slight Spanish accent. Walking out to the patio we saw Esteli for the first time in the daylight. Even though we are in the center of town, our street is dirt and a small canal carries the water away. There are more dogs here than at San Juan del Sur and many of the people ride horses so there is a constant clip-clop during the day. Electricity is constant here and the water pressure seems very good. In San Juan del Sur we would usually lose power for several hours a day though we are told this is due to the upcoming elections. Without power you also lose water. Most of the homes are one story and almost all have zinc corrugated roofs. Many are painted bright colors and all are kept very clean with constant sweepings of the tile floors. The typical home has a small living area in front where you would find a sofa and a chair or two. Most homes have a television and some type of music system. We only receive four TV stations though Direct TV is available to those that can afford it. The one station, TeleNorte, was very interesting. The first night it was playing “Snakes on a Plane” which at this time was still in the U.S. theatres. We thought it seemed of poor quality when we saw silhouettes of people getting up and leaving at the end of the film. Apparently someone had set up a video camera at a theatre and taped the entire movie then they played it on the public TV channel throughout Nicaragua. We took our first shower in Esteli this morning using the infamous “widow maker”. This is an electrical contraption that fits on the shower head to warm up the water. It is a little scary seeing electrical wires running along the plumbing and it does not seem to work well. On a previous trip to Leon I had showered using a widow maker and sometimes you would receive a small electrical shock, hence the name. It is cooler here in Esteli especially at night which is refreshing. We have breakfast which consists of eggs mixed with onions, gallo pinto (beans and rice), fried plantains and a tortilla. The coffee is very good and we have begun to drink the local water. The experienced travelers tell us that it will take us about a week to get acclimated to the water feeling some illness at first. We decide it is time to go native. The school has arranged for an afternoon trip to a local waterfall. At the school we meet our first gringos in Esteli, a couple from New Zealand, who will be here for a week then travel further north to teach English. We walk several blocks to the bus station then get on a bus heading south. Eventually we get to a preserve and the guide escorts us down a road to a small lake fed by a beautiful waterfall. Mammoth butterflies flit in the scattered sunshine and we spend the afternoon resting there. The walk back up the hill reminds us of our age and we return to our house very tired. Another day in Nicaragua. 2006 Sunday October 1 A day of rest before school starts. Our native family is very nice and treats us well. Paying $5 per day for a room and three meals makes me think we may be able to make it after all. Typical meals include beans, rice, tortillas, plantains, eggs and rarely, some meat. I’m not much for some vegetables but I’m growing accustomed to the local food and it is quite good. Much of the time I’m not sure what I’m eating since my questions receive Spanish replies so the answer may be cabbage or it may be a fungus scraped off a tree. It seems every day we drink a different colored drink and I did not know you could make a sweet drink from corn. Several meals have consisted of a soup made with plantains, cabbage, chicken broth, potatoes and mint leaves. Never thought I would have a soup with sweet bananas and mint but it was good. Having a hard time eating all of the food put in front of me. We visit the local market since we need to have lots of water and some Coca Cola (we’re not super human). The cool night air makes it easy to sleep. Esteli is a very noisy city of around 150,000 people. Vendors at all times and especially in the morning walk down the streets and hawk their food products. There are many cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicycles. When we ask where the money comes from and knowing the low local wages, we are told many of the natives have friends and relatives in the US that send back money. Not sure if that explains everything since many of vehicles look rather new and they are expensive here. During the night there is a furious battle on our roof and we hear the snarling cats. It turns out that both rats and cats were involved and the metal roof amplifies the sounds. 2006 Monday October 2 Our first day of Spanish language school. Like many others we had taken language classes at local community colleges but never retained anything since we did not use the new language with anyone. This would be total immersion Spanish. We were staying with a Nicaraguan family that did not speak English, only Spanish would be used at the school and there were very few gringos in Esteli. The school was a typical Nica structure with all walls, ceilings and floors being made of concrete. The stairs and banister to the second floor are even formed of concrete though the height of the steps is strange making it difficult to traverse without staring down. Apparently the creators realized their error and added an extra step halfway up which really challenged your coordination. The rooms are very small, perhaps 7’ by 7’ with a small fluorescent bulb in the center of the ceiling. With cement surroundings you do not easily change where light fixtures or outlets exist. There are three or four rooms per floor and the roof is the usual corrugated zinc though it does not cover all rooms. The school will weather any hurricane and may outlast the Roman ruins. Rest assured that many Nicaraguan structures will be around long after man has left for the stars. We had met Maria, the school director, when we first arrived in Esteli but she was also to be our teacher for the next two weeks. Maria was truly a language professional having taught at Miami and Managua at various universities. If she spoke much English, she never let on. The first two days the couple from New Zealand were with us but in a different classroom. After that, we were the only students during the two weeks. Students tended to come during the high season which is the winter months for obvious reasons. There would be quite a few students from November through March. Most students from the USA and Europe tended to go to equivalent classes in the more well known cities of Managua, Granada, Leon and SJDS. Classes were held morning or afternoon but we preferred morning so ours were held from 8 – 12 with a short break at 10:00. It did not matter since we very much enjoyed the classes and time flew by. Our first assignment was an examination to determine our level of Spanish. Even though we were able to stumble through about half of it, it quickly showed our expertise was about at the level of someone who watched too many episodes of Zorro and the Cisco Kid. Remember those shows? Anyway, knowing the words bandito, taco and burrito did not convince our teacher we would be reading Spanish technical manuals anytime soon. We spent equal time on vocabulary and grammar. This also reminded us how much or little we knew of English grammar rules. Our first task each day was to describe, in Spanish, in detail, our activities of the night before or a favorite novel or movie. The first few days we found this more difficult since our Spanish vocabulary was rather small. Describing a fictional novel using only 10 Spanish words can be challenging but can be accomplished. People who only speak English will tell you that Spanish is simple to learn but it must be used constantly or you will forget everything. How many people do you know that took several semesters of Spanish in high school or college can not remember but a few simple words? In English there are seven tenses of verbs but Spanish has 14 tenses and in English they are similar. For example, I sing, you sing, they sing, we sing, I have sung, etc. but in Spanish it would be canto, cantas, cantan, cantamos, cantado not to mention sex where a male singer would be a cantor but a female singer would be a cantora. At noon we rush home since lunch (almuerzo) is served immediately and is the major meal of the day. Then it is siesta time since it is the hottest part of the day. The whole city goes to sleep. Where trucks are being unloaded, the workers simply stop and fall asleep on whatever load they are working on. It is almost comical but we quickly learn to do the same for an hour or so. The rest of the afternoon is spent studying since the homework is not light. When there is time I run to the nearest Internet café to check on the news and any emails. The Internet is usually slow and unreliable but there are Internet cafes or kiosks on most every block of Esteli second in popularity only to the previously mentioned pulperias. The son-in-law of our family runs an Internet kiosk called the Matrix which I normally use. The cost is usually around eight cordobas per hour and the exchange rate is 17 to 18 cordobas to our dollar. So, a cordoba is worth around $.06. Printing anything at an Internet café is expensive due to the cost of the printer cartridges. Printing a black/white page is one cordoba but a color one is four cordobas which is high even by USA standards. Another popular business in Esteli and most places in Nicaragua is copying anything. There were dozens of shops having only a Xerox copier where you were allowed to copy anything you wanted regardless of copyright. I never saw a legitimate copy of a DVD or musical CD and often available before the official release. Made several friends when they found we had arrived with over 3500 songs on my MP3 player and hundreds of original quality DVDs. If this diary is read by US government officials, the DVDs and CDs were forcefully taken from me by Nica thugs. Often I would go downtown where the banks were located to get more money. I love the ATMs since they dispensed cordobas or dollars. With the 17 to 1 exchange rate, for $100 I’d get 1700 cordobas which makes you feel wealthy. At least with cordobas I was finally a millionaire. 2006 Tuesday, October 3 Up at 5:30 and breakfast waiting for us at 7:30. Fried plantains, gallo pinto and a fried egg. Really getting to like those fried plantains especially when still hot from the skillet. Not particularly fond of gallo pinto but it’s all right when you can mix it with something like the egg. Coffee with every meal. We were now regularly drinking the water from the tap but often the meal would come with a sweet drink. It seemed every day it would be a different colored drink. Most were made from different fruits available locally but sometimes it would be made from corn or milk. I have no idea what we were drinking but they were refreshing. Five minutes before class started so we rushed out the door like two school kids. There is not much I can say further about the classes but we enjoyed them along with the instructor. That night Amy got her first cooking lesson from the madre of our new family. Since then Amy has learned how to make quite a few native dishes. One thing I have to give the Nicaraguans, they have learned how to live on $60 of food per month. And some of the dishes are quite good. Time to study our Spanish to make our teacher proud. 2006 Saturday October 7 It is the weekend and we dearly need some rest but we have some paperwork to at the capital city of Managua. We get up early and walk the kilometer or so to the bus station. The buses may be unusual but the bus system is very good. There is a bus leaving every half hour for Managua and we luck out since the next bus is an express meaning a two hour drive instead of over three hours. Even better, it is like a Greyhound bus with reclining seats. It takes very little to excite us anymore. Arriving two hours later at the main bus terminal in Managua we find it is a madhouse of activity. Hailing a taxi, we arrive at our destination a few minutes later though it is difficult to find the exact building. Remember there are no street addresses, just references to major landmarks like half a block from the Spanish Embassy. Still, we finally stumble upon the right place. Meetings are cordial and we complete our paperwork. They offer to take us back to the bus terminal but we ask to be dropped off at the shopping mall since Managua is the only city with modern malls. At the food court we have a tough decision between the KFC knockoff or Burger King for lunch. The King wins and we stuff ourselves with foreign food such as French fries and a big old burger. It tasted exactly the same as the ones in the USA and about the same price which is expensive for Nicaragua. We spent a couple hours wandering about the mall. Prices are very high but the stores are similar to their equivalents in the states including stores that just sell high-end tennis shoes. The Belk equivalent carries Tommy Hilfiger, Pantene, Dr. Scholl shoes and expensive perfumes. Someone in Nicaragua is doing very well. A taxi is hailed and we are on the way to the bus terminal. By 4:00 PM we are back in Esteli. 2006 Sunday October 8 It is a full day of siestas and studying. 2006 Wednesday October 11 This is the day the ship with our household goods and vehicle is scheduled to arrive in Bluefields on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua. Unknown to us it will be several weeks before customs will release our goods. Upon release from customs, the vehicle and goods will be put on a barge to Rama then driven to Managua where we should take possession. Not being that familiar with the roads of Nicaragua it should be an interesting drive from Managua to our new home in San Juan del Sur on the opposite coast. The bright red Jeep Liberty and equally bright red 12 foot trailer will be a beacon for the local police to pull us over. Another interesting day at school, lunch then siesta. We decide to take our new family and teacher to dinner in appreciation for everything. The family chooses a favorite restaurant owned by a Chinese friend. We have no idea what kind of food will be served in a Nicaraguan restaurant run by a Chinese person in Esteli. October is the height of the rainy season though there has not been an unusual amount of rain as of yet. Today brings back the norm. It is a monsoon all day with small rivers running down the street in front of the house. We wonder if we will need to move the dinner date to another day but the weather does not seem to bother the family. The padre of the family is a school bus driver and his vehicle is a 10 passenger van. We believe the vehicle is owned by the city government but he seems to be able to use it for personal use as much as he wishes. Around 6:45 we jump into the van, make a short stop at the school to pick up our teacher then head across the city to the restaurant. Eventually we arrive in front of a small restaurant. The continuous rain has not abated and just crossing a street may require some swimming or at least a long leap. We walk half a block to find some high ground where we can ford the street. Due to the rain, we are the only patrons of the restaurant and there are around a dozen tables of various seating. For Nicaragua this is an above average restaurant meaning meals cost from $5 - $7 per person. Chicken is very popular in all forms and surprisingly, for the climate, soup is very common and can be the entire meal. All of us order a chicken meal except Amy and our teacher, who have the steak. Along with the entrée you get white rice, a small salad, French fries and the table received a plate of sliced bread with a slab of butter. It was quite good! Normally, the big meal of the day is lunch so our teacher ordered her meal “to go”. Our teacher and madre ordered dessert, flan, ahead of the meal and ate it first. Beers were $.90 and soft drinks $.50. Our family very much enjoyed the opportunity to go out and left nothing on their plates even though it was a substantial meal. I find myself eating a lot less in the warm, humid weather. Overall, it was a wonderful experience greatly appreciated by our guests. 2006 October - A Country of Doors Nicaragua should be called the country of doors since you never know what you will find behind them and different towns have different flavors. For example, in Granada, the sidewalks are narrow with the building walls going right to the street even though different buildings may have different architecture. In Esteli, homes tended to have a patio in front while San Juan del Sur was a mish mosh of styles. Still, in each city or town, the door of the home was prominent and could be richly carved, wrought iron or a faded, worn portal. The appearance of the door is no indication of what laid behind it. Upon opening or being invited in, you may be greeted with a hovel having a dirt floor or a richly appointed home with a beautiful courtyard. Various reasons were given: keeping taxes low by hiding the richness of the home; disguising the value of the contents from theft or just humility by not flaunting your station in life. There is no way of judging the value of a city home in Nicaragua by just driving or walking by. Some areas of a town may be better than others but it would not be unusual for a rich home to be between two low value homes. Cleanliness is very important to most families. It was not unusual to see a home being swept and mopped several times a day especially during the rainy season. Of course, if it was a dirt street in front of the home it was a job keeping the high-traffic areas of a home clean. Often, a mat, towel or old clothing was placed on the floor immediately after the door entry to wipe the feet. One of our first door experiences was visiting a business associate’s home in Granada. It was a faded red door directly across from a large, old church. Upon entry we were greeted with one of the most beautiful homes we had ever visited. In it was a large courtyard with plants and trees with the various rooms surrounding it. In Esteli I was shown a house that again had a simple door on the street that gave no indication of what was behind it. Inside was a perfect home for the tropical climate. Fully half of the home was open to the sky having multiple little courtyards and gardens with fully grown palm trees, hibiscus, and other flowering plants. Rooms were separated by large arching portals accented by brick. Even interior walls had high windows to give the appearance or the reality of bright, open spaces. 2006 October - Real Estate in Nicaragua You might wonder what the costs are for real estate and homes in Nicaragua. Currently it is all over the map as Nicaragua is currently being discovered. Unlike Mexico and several other countries, foreigners can own property including ocean front with the same rights as the residents. The two major cost factors are location and ability to get clear title to the land. As always, demand and supply is the pressure on price and there appears to be little effect from the growing native population. There is risk in that everything depends on a stable government. There is cheap, beautiful property available all over the world from Russia to Malaysia to Argentina. Few investors or retirees are willing to give up their present citizenships or want a 20 hour flight to get home when necessary. Nicaragua is two hours flight time from Miami and presently has attractive foreign retiree and tourist business benefits. The country has had a stable democratic government since the early 1990s. Odds are good it will remain this way but we are watching the November presidential carefully. Real estate speculation is the highest in Granada and San Juan del Sur where there is the highest concentration of foreigners from the USA and Europe. This speculation is beginning to climb the Pacific coast towards Leon. Do not confuse foreign investment with people retiring to Nicaragua. Even in San Juan del Sur at this writing there are fewer than 100 expatriates living full time in Nicaragua. The rest range from surfers coming for a few weeks a year to speculators living elsewhere but buying and selling land in Nicaragua. Clear title to land is essential for obvious reasons but title insurance companies are now actively providing policies in Nicaragua. Previous governments had confiscated land and kept it or redistributed to other people. The new government wants to ensure the true owners are fairly compensated if land was unrightfully taken from them. Coupling this with poor record keeping during the past wars and you can see the difficulty of determining clear title. Like the USA, the building lots keep getting smaller to maximize return for the developer. The concept of a development is a new one for Nicaragua since it had previously been just individual building lots. Foreign ownership also changed the image of desirability since a Nicaraguan would place more value on farmland than a house on a sandy beach. Retirees are not interested in farm land usually. Nicaragua has also watched the value of land in Costa Rica skyrocket since the 1980s. Until recently Costa Rica had also offered attractive foreign retiree and tourist business incentives. Nicaragua was learning quickly and the Pacific coast was beginning to receive recognition but Nicaragua lacks the infrastructure and stability of Costa Rica. When we first visited Nicaragua four years ago you could buy oceanfront property around San Juan del Sur for less than $25,000 and it could be over an acre. Those same properties are now much smaller and will likely be over $200,000. Depending on the amenities and the proximity to SJDS, oceanfront properties range currently from $120,000 to over $300,000. Condos or villas can be purchased on the ocean for $150,000 to over $400,000. Ocean view property prices are starting to rise accordingly. Two kilometers from the ocean with a high view of the ocean can still be purchased for $30,000 but not for long near SJDS. Heading north towards Leon, oceanfront lots can still be purchased for less than $100,000 and large tracts on the ocean can still be had for less than $1 million. Heading even further north and on the entire Caribbean coast, costs are much lower if clear title can be obtained. Pre-construction pricing is the rage presently. A developer finances the development by pre-selling homes, condos or lots then using the capital to begin the building process. It is not unusual to pre-buy a condo or home and it is worth double or triple by completion. There is a substantial risk that the development never happens. Most of the purchasing is by speculators never intending to live here and there is no community if, in the end, no one lives in the development and rentals are concentrated in the high season of December to February. Granada has the highest concentration of foreigners and restored colonial homes are now commanding ever increasing prices. Still, it is not crazy like SJDS since you can buy a nice home within the city for less than $100,000. Going outside the town, prices drop dramatically. The city of Granada sits on Lake Nicaragua which is the 10th largest lake in the world and around Granada are many little islands of land that may be one to several acres of land. These are very desirable for unknown reasons but they are greatly increasing in value. Outside of Granada and SJDS, prices are much lower but fluctuate all over the map. Even in the capital city of Managua you can buy a magnificent home for $150,000 or an acceptable home for less than $50,000. In the mountain cities of Esteli and Jinotega, a beautiful new home built to American standards is less than $100,000 if you want one to impress your friends or less than $50,000 for a very nice home. A small farm can be purchased for hundreds per acre or up to $1,000 if near a city, lake or river. It is cheaper if you purchase a large farm. An acquaintance purchased 80 acres of farmland just outside Esteli for $28,000 and it included a small pond, waterfall and a small house. A hundred acre farm in Jinotega with a gorgeous lake view was around $80,000 though clear title is uncertain. Please remember that most of the above examples are for very nice houses and many with a million dollar view. A perfectly adequate, simple home without hot water (there is no need for A/C or heat in most parts of Nicaragua) can be had for $20,000 or $30,000 though most foreigners would find it too Spartan. The family we stayed with in Esteli are aware we are interested in at least comparing real estate prices with other parts of Nicaragua and possibly starting a business. It turns out our madre is quite the business woman and owns several homes in Esteli and some property. She showed us several homes that were typical Nica homes but nothing we would live in unless absolutely necessary. One night she introduced us to a friend selling his mother’s house. Not enough rooms for us but a stunning home with huge courtyards but unfortunately with all floors having white tile. It is a lot of work to keep clean and near downtown so too noisy for us. The price before bartering was $60,000. Our madre also owned some land just outside Esteli which she tried to get us to buy for $20,000. It was a lovely piece of land of about three acres with fruit trees and a babbling brook but we thought it was way overpriced. Land sales has made many a Nica family relatively wealthy considering. Remember that the average Nica family has figured out how to adequately feed their families for $60 a month with an average income of $100 a month. With a thriving black market and money coming from relatives in the USA, it is hard to tell their true income. Sure are a lot of nice trucks and motorcycles being driven by Nicas. 2006 Friday October 13 Last day of school already and sorry to see it end. We learned a lot yet have a long way to go before we would be comfortable conversing with the Nicas. We may be back for more classes or we may take classes in other Nica locations. One of the other teachers stopped by and there was a long conversation on abortions. Many, if not most, Nicas are adamantly against abortion. Rallies against abortions are frequent and hugely attended. While not in favor of abortions I had always thought it was a woman’s choice and making it legal would ensure the procedure was safe and available when that choice was made. The zeal of the woman made me keep my opinions to myself. We said our goodbyes to our profesora and gave her a gift a fresh coffee beans. There is a web site called www.nicaliving.com I had used to ask questions about moving to Nicaragua and I used it to find any gringos in Esteli. A gentlemen responded quickly and stated he would be happy to meet with us. That afternoon we took a taxi to the Las Vegas Casino and looked for his nearby house which was just around the corner. We spent the afternoon conversing with him and asking questions about Esteli and Nicaragua. He is a nice older guy that typically married a younger Nica woman and stayed. Since he knew we were heading for Jinotega he said to look out for a friend of his living there. Not much chance of running into one particular person in a fairly large town. Anyway, we had a pleasant afternoon with him. 2006 Saturday October 14 We are still naïve enough to think our vehicle and household goods will be released by customs soon so we decide to stay in Esteli a little longer. For the weekend we decide to take a bus to Jinotega which is even higher in the mountains. It should take about two hours to go southeast to Matagalpa which was greatly settled by German immigrants long ago and is known for the coffee plantations. There we would get on another bus for the 1 ½ hour trip north to Jinotega. At least, that was the plan. I asked the attendant if this was the bus to Jinotega and Amy asked if this was the bus to Jinotega. Si, si, this is the bus to Jinotega and a few minutes later we leave on the bus. After a half hour we see we are still heading south and we know we are going to Managua. We still don’t know the reason for the confusion but being an express bus there are no stops and if even able to leave the bus, we’d simply be in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they were having some fun with the gringos. Two hours later we are back in the capital city of Managua. We have an hour before the next bus leaves for Matagalpa and we are starving. The bus terminal is not quite like a Greyhound bus terminal and it can be intimidating with all of the vendors running around trying to sell you fruit and unknown Nica delicacies. We see a little stand that sells hot dogs so we decide to take the chance. The hot dog is huge. The bun is huge and there are all kinds of sauces on it as well as the standard relish, mustard and mayonnaise. It is absolutely delicious and tastes like it is made of the normal meat family. I was never quite sure what USA hot dogs were made of either. Time to leave from our unplanned visit to Managua. Two hours later we arrive back in Matagalpa and a ½ hour later we are on the way to Jinotega which takes several hours. The roads are awful but the vista views remind us of western Carolina. There are no curbs or guardrails up here but the all-day bus ride has numbed us to any imagined dangers. If we go off the cliff, at least it will in a USA school bus. We arrive in Jinotega and are pleasantly surprised to find a small, clean, quiet but much cooler locale. It is starting to get dark and we need to find a place to stay. The central part of each Nica town we had visited always had a park and hotels tend to be near the park. Not so in this case but that is where we started. We’re walking down a street that seemed to have promise and we see another Internet café but it has a sign that states it has tourist information. Going inside we meet a gentleman with a British accent who asks us if we just arrived from Esteli. It turns out he is the friend of the person we had spent Friday afternoon with in Esteli. Talk about a million-to-one chance meeting! Anyway, he directed us to a nice hotel and asked if we would be interested in going with him to the town’s celebration that evening. Apparently it is the 115th anniversary of Jinotega. So, why not? We meet him at 6:00 PM at the hotel and walk about 10 blocks to a large park. For 50 cordobas we get two beers and entrance to the celebration. There are no age restrictions on drinking in Nicaragua. Is that good or bad? There are live bands playing Latino music of various types and dozens of food tents though most of them seem to be selling French fries. We finally select a stall cooking meat kebobs on an open flame along with some type of torta. Not sure what kind of meat it is but it is very good. We’re all tired so we go to a bar our British friend recommends after ensuring we are not outspoken against the Sandinistas. Gringos are relatively rare in Jinotega so our accents attract the attention of the locals and we stumble through our limited Spanish with the patrons of the bar. This is also where we meet Sarah, one of the other gringos in town. Sarah is a hoot and seems to know something about the real estate available in Jinotega. Now we’re so tired that we excuse ourselves and walk back to the hotel. Jinotega’s claim to fame is being next to Lake Apanas which is an artificial lake created by a dam to generate hydroelectric power for approximately 30% of Nicaragua. It is a beautiful lake approximately 16 kilometers long. It turns out the owner of the hotel is the representative for a development starting on the lake which I had learned about on the Internet. An appointment is made to visit the development the following morning. 2006 Sunday October 15 After a good breakfast we are taken out to the development on the south side of Lake Apanas. The views are wonderful but the building requirements are stringent on what you can build and the building cost is near $100 per square foot (excluding the lot cost) which is exorbitant for Nicaragua and outrageous for out here on the frontier. The finest house in town would be a fraction of that cost. It appears they are trying to market to foreign speculators that have no idea of the true costs. We return to the hotel and give Sarah a call to see what properties are available in the area. She is not answering the phone so we tour the town and watch a horse parade. There are many horse ranches in the area and we see some truly beautiful creatures. Later, in the afternoon, Sarah returns my call and invites us to a rodeo that night as part of the celebration of the 115th anniversary. Amy is not feeling well so I agree to meet Sarah at the rodeo if I can find her. Somehow I’m able to tell the taxi cab driver where I’m going since it is now dark and I have no idea where I am, let alone where I’m going. I arrive at a large circular, wooden structure that has rows of wooden benches built around an arena approximately 50 yards in diameter. No one asks me for the admission so I just walk up the rickety steps. Everyone seems to be having a good time and I had arrived late. I circled the arena trying to find Sarah whom I had met the previous night in a dark bar. There are rodeo clowns entertaining the crowd and in the next event, a young man riding a bull is released into the arena. He is successful in staying on the bucking bull until someone lights some fireworks. The large explosion excites the bull to throw the rider then for good measure, stomps the young man into the ground for a while. He is hurt pretty bad and is eventually carried off on a blanket. The score is now Bulls 1 Humans 0. I finally find Sarah showing a small boy the wonders of a camera with a large LCD screen. Sarah brings me up to date on the history of Jinotega. The carnage of the last rodeo event seems to satisfy the blood lust of the crowd and the people start exiting the arena. Sarah asks if I need a lift back to my hotel which I graciously accept but I find she has arrived on motorcycle. She calls it her “Chinese Harley”. So…… another typical night in Nicaragua holding on for dear life to a woman I barely know on a large yellow motorcycle breezing through the mountain village of Jinotega. She pulls up to a bar and we find a table in the busy place. Everyone is very friendly and they know I’m new in town since I stick out like a red-headed stepchild. Sarah is an ex-Marine that seems to know everyone and they all want to meet the new gringo in town. Someone offers to play North Carolina music on the jukebox in my honor but I’m not aware of what music that would be. Three young women at the next table keep asking for matches and making small talk. It has to be small talk since my Spanish is very limited. Sarah informs me that the three women are bi-sexual which I’m not sure is said to make me more or less comfortable. Visions of being overwhelmed by three young women would have been exciting in my younger days but not in the frontier town of Jinotega in Nicaragua at this late stage in life. I think it is time to leave so I make plans to meet Sarah in the morning to see some lake property. Strange dreams that night! 2006 Monday October 16 The problem with property in Jinotega is that it is difficult to buy with a clear title. This is why most expats we have met in Nicaragua have never been to Esteli, let alone Jinotega. Sarah takes us to a house that is for sale near the lake but without a lake view. It is overpriced and nothing that we could live in. Something like the Clampetts lived in before the move to Beverly Hills. We switch our attention to farm land that overlooks the lake. There are several farms of around 100 acres available for around $80-90,000 before bartering and they all overlook the lake. There appears to be only one boat in the city. Can you imagine that with a large lake? Let’s see. I started on a farm as a child, could I end up on a farm in retirement? Labor is cheap (less than $100 a month with 48 hour work week) and the soil is rich. Major products in the area include coffee, lettuce, cabbage, beef and many types of fruit. Hmmmm, have to think about that. It is time to return to Esteli so we decide to take the northern bus route that goes directly to Esteli. It is only 50 kilometers or 30 miles so how long can it take? Well, the roads are awful winding through the mountains and it took almost four hours of bone jarring excitement. Apparently there was an electrical issue on the bus since the interior and exterior lights turned off and on at will. Luckily the driver seemed to know the curves by heart. We eventually drag ourselves back to the home of our family in Esteli. 2006 Tuesday October 17 Day of rest for the weary. This doesn’t feel like retirement so far. 2006 Wednesday October 18 Our goods and vehicle still have not been released by customs so we decide we must return to our house in SJDS. We’ll miss the three prepared meals a day, our adopted family and the cool nights. We say our farewells, get some money from the bank and head for the bus terminal. We have ridden so many buses that it appears some of the bus drivers are looking familiar. Two hour bus ride to Managua, a taxi to the other bus station, an hour wait then a two hour bus ride to Rivas. In Rivas we meet with Martin who is working on getting our goods through customs and our 5 year residency card. If we do not establish residency soon we will have to leave the country for three days then start the process again. Normally you apply for a one year residency then after one year, apply for another year then eventually get a 5 year residency card. Martin is an ex-immigrations officer and for the right amount of money, will get us the 5 year residency immediately. So far, he has not been successful on our residency or getting the goods through customs. We sign more forms and give him more money. We then take a taxi to SJDS to our home. If you remember, when we left our home there was no water, electricity was off several hours a day, the refrigerator did not work and it was hot and muggy. So little food could be kept for long and we were still living out of our luggage. Lo and behold, we have water! It was the best cold shower we had ever had! It looked like we might make it after all. We fell asleep on the air mattress we had brought with us. 2006 Thursday October 19 We wake up to a beautiful morning. Parrots, grackles and hawks fly overhead noisily and howler monkeys can be heard on the hills behind us. We walk into town to get food and catch up on our emails. Even though it is very warm, we seem to be acclimating to the environment and grateful for any breeze. We purchase two beach chairs since we have no furniture. At least we can now sit on the patio and enjoy the scenery. 2006 Sunday October 22 It’s a somewhat warm and muggy day after several overcast, cooler days. Today’s excitement was an encounter with one of the nefarious creatures from the James Bond movies. We had both gotten up and taken a cold shower as normal. Amy had put on a top that had hung on the bathroom door knob all night. Remember, we are still living in our original clothes since our household goods have not yet been released by customs. At least 20 minutes had gone by when Amy let out a scream. She yanked off her top and a scorpion fell out but only after it had bitten her twice. She showed it no mercy by crushing it. Now the quandary was what to do? In the James Bond movies, scorpions were used to painfully kill people. I had no vehicle and we are over a mile from town. Neither Amy nor I knew whether this was like a bee sting or if she had only seconds for me to slice the wound and suck the venom out. For that matter, I did not know whether having the venom in my mouth would also kill me then we would have two bodies having spasms on the floor in a house in a third world country. It could be years before they discover our bodies. And in a weakened state I could hardly drag her body all of the way to town. Amy appeared to be still alive so I put away the knife and went to our neighbor’s house. He informed me that it should be similar to a bee or wasp sting but if the lips or tongue became numb then there may be an allergic reaction and we should get to a clinic in town. He suggested giving Amy strong coffee with some kind of alcohol like vodka in it to dissipate the poison. By that time, I was ready for a strong drink. He also informed me that there are two types of scorpions in Nicaragua: brown ones that are about three inches long and smaller black ones which is the type that bit Amy. Apparently the venom is stronger in the smaller ones which makes sense since the larger one could overpower you by its strength alone. So much ado about nothing but there is something about scorpions and snakes. Needless to say, we now check our clothes and bed covers very carefully now. If scorpions were that deadly, this country would have been decimated by the little suckers centuries ago. We’ll probably have bad dreams tonight anyway. 2006 Monday, October 23 It’s time to take life by the horns. We’re tired of sleeping on an air mattress and having no refrigeration and we need to see our lawyer to sign some papers. We decide to take a bus to Rivas which is much larger than SJDS and is about 35 kilometers away. Our luck holds since we meet a bus as we walk into town and it is going to Rivas via the back roads. Good, we wanted to see what was on that route anyway. It is a hot day which reminds me I need to find a more powerful deodorant. The brand that is made for a woman but strong enough for a man is not nearly enough for the hot days in Nicaragua. Also, no water today because the electrical company disconnected the power to the water pump at the connection to the electrical pole. Four of our neighbors and we pay $15 a month to a gentlemen to use his well and he apparently did not pay his electrical bill on time. It is estimated that 30-40% of the power usage in Nicaragua is illegal because a family member would just skinny up the closest pole then run a connection to their home. You gotta love this country! The bus seems to stop every 200 meters to pick up someone and there are houses all along the road. The bus driver seems to know everyone and their schedule since he often stops in front of a house, honks the horn and someone will come running out to hop on the bus. I guess this is the Nica equivalent of the commuter train to New York City. The frequent stops, with passengers getting on and off, allows us to observe the people. How do they do it? Many of them live in a small cinder block building often with a dirt or cement floor yet the children are neat and clean, often wearing white tops. Babies and young children rarely make any noise and I don’t remember any crying even though the bus is hot with no A/C. It is not unusual for a mother to breast feed a child on the bus. The bus crosses bridges that do not look safe enough for a car. The width of the planks is about a foot each side beyond the width of the bus. As we cross, the weight of the bus makes the planks bend upward almost like a cartoon setting. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and bikes are zipping up and down the rocky road. Though less than 25 miles, the bus trip takes almost 1 ½ hours. Rivas is much cleaner and vibrant than we had expected. The central park is painted with bright colors and the one side is dominated by a large white Catholic church. As we walk down a street we see a Curacao store which is the Nica equivalent of Best Buy but without the DVDs, musical CDs and 99.9% of the inventory. We decide to buy a bed and a refrigerator which will be delivered to us in three days. Delivery instructions are interesting since there are no street addresses. Essentially the instructions are to go to SJDS, take Chocolata road north for 2 kilometers and we will be standing in the road to direct the truck to our house. They will call us on the way to SJDS. We then noticed that the store has a 5 gallon water cooler which makes us salivate since we have had no refrigeration for a month. Unfortunately they do not have one in stock and it will be delivered to the Rivas store from Managua in about a week. They won’t accept payment in advance which means another trip to Rivas for us in a week or so. Now it is time to find the lawyer’s office and his street address on his business card is something like from BDF Bank go one block south then 100 meters west and of course he has no sign on his office. A couple phone calls later we get close enough that he sticks his head out the door and we see him. We sign a few documents written in Spanish that we can not read then we are finished. It is still early so we head for the park and find a nice little restaurant that actually has hamburger and fries on the menu. We are pleasantly surprised at how good the combo can be. Still being early, we head back out into the city. The central market has everything from fruit and vegetables to hardware stores. Everything is very clean and if we already had a refrigerator, we would have stocked up on food. First stop is to get some duplicate keys made since there is only one key maker in Rivas. They are surprisingly expensive by Nicaraguan standards, costing me almost $12 to make two complete sets of our various house keys. Now for the challenge, we need to find rope or twine for a clothes line, clothes pins and a bathroom mirror. Instead of trying to keep up with the Jones we still have not caught up to the Clampetts for the complete suburban look but the clothes line should help. Many of the people here use barbed wire to hang their clothes for drying outside. Certainly keeps the clothes from blowing away but it is not for us. We eventually find everything we need by amazing the store owners with our dazzling Spanish. Even the few that speak English do not seem to understand us but everyone is friendly. The returning bus that goes by our house has already left. Must have heard we were coming. We instead take the direct bus to SJDS but this requires us to walk the two kilometers to our house. We arrive home as it is getting dark. 2006 Tuesday October 24 The presidential election is coming up on Sunday, November 5 th and everyone is discussing it. Even the natives are asking our opinion. We are not familiar with the platforms of the various candidates but the real discussion is whether Daniel Ortega will win. So our opinion is that we would rather anyone win other than Ortega of the Sandinista Party. It is like the bumper stickers in North Carolina that say “We’re for whoever is playing against Duke”. We feel or at least hope he would not reinstitute the previous Sandinista practices of redistribution of land and freezing of bank accounts. It would kill the growing tourist business and wipe out the pensionado program we entered Nicaragua under, not to mention wipe out everyone’s real estate investment. There are growing rumors that he would impose these practices but the rumors may have been started by the other candidates. Even if the Sandinista party won and did not make major economic changes, there is the considerable possibility of negative consequences from Washington, DC since the USA has already made threats of embargo and other reactions if the right party does not win. Interestingly, Ortega chose a Contra party member as his running mate and we have no idea what that means. I’m assuming everyone remembers the Sandinistas overthrowing the Samoza dictatorship and installing a socialist government which fought with the Contras financed by then President Reagan and the ever popular Oliver North of the Iran Contra affair. I never could figure out why the USA would support a ruthless dictatorship over a Nicaraguan elected government. The Sandinistas had their problems but they were trying to rectify the wrongs of the decades of dictatorship. Anyway, enough politics since it always leads to arguments. We’ll see what happens and hope a moderate candidate wins. 2006 Thursday October 26 We get the phone call from the truck delivering the refrigerator and bed so Amy rushes down to the road to make sure they don’t miss our turnoff. There is the feeling of Christmas since this is our first major purchase in Nica. Santa has truly arrived when we see the pickup truck round the bend. The road is rough but they get within 50 yards of our house. From there they will have to carry everything up the hill and into our house. Piece by piece they carry up the mattress, box springs and refrigerator. But wait……. there is one more large box left in the truck. Lo and behold, it is the water cooler! It had arrived early and they had decided to deliver it unannounced along with everything else. This was better than seeing our stockings stuffed on Christmas morning. Along with the delivery men, the manager of the store had also come. They unpacked everything, set up the bed and took away the packing materials. We were very impressed. It was time to decipher the Spanish guides that accompanied the equipment. Every few minutes we would open the refrigerator to see how cold it had gotten. Water bottles were put in the freezer in anticipation of a frozen delight later on. That night we had ice and everything seemed a little more right in the world. Unfortunately, the next day we had no power and the ice returned to its natural liquid form. Tomorrow I would walk into town and purchase a 5 gallon water bottle for the water cooler. 2006 Friday October 27 It has now been four days without water. Our water landlord has paid his electrical bill but the crew has not arrived to reconnect the electrical line. This sounds technical but it actually means someone shimmies up the pole and connects the loose line using some black electrical tape. Later, in the afternoon, we are informed the electrical line is reconnected. I’m given a key and instructions to get the well’s water pump running again. All I have to do is reset the circuit breaker switch then hit the reset button on the electrical panel on the pump. But this is Nicaragua and nothing is easy especially when the instructions start with “All you have to do is…………”. OK, I walk down the road a bit then make a right down a hill for a few hundred more meters. It is very overgrown but there is a path. The trees are full of the common Turkey Vulture and a few black hawks. I know they will not harm me but still, I can see them picking at my bones if I fail to return from this task. Why couldn’t they be parrots today? Every time I hear one of the vultures swooping from their perch I’m reminded that I chose this adventure over staying in my little townhouse in South Carolina with the constant water and electricity. I arrive at the well and next to it is the caretaker’s hovel. To prevent any unpleasant surprises I call out several times and bang on the door but there is no one there. The circuit breaker is located inside the caretaker’s hovel. The key I’d been given is for the padlock that locks an iron grate over the front door. Why would anyone try to break into this 90 square foot hovel with a cement floor and corrugated metal roof? It was more likely they would be trying to break out. Anyway, I’m trying to unlock the grate when I feel bites all over my legs. Sure enough, ants were swarming all over me and these were the kind that bite. I quickly swatted them off me before the vultures noticed I might be weakening or losing the battle. Finding a wet rag I cleared the area around the door of ants. I knew I only had minutes to unlock the padlock, pull back the grate and open the door before they would come swarming back. Why did I decide to wear sandals on this day of days? Triumphantly, I entered the hovel and on the side wall there are two circuit breakers, one being up and one being down. Using my rusting mathematical skills I quickly surmised there were three possible ways to set the two switches since the present setting was obviously not the correct one. I wanted to be successful on the first try since the ants were returning. I pushed the first breaker up, jumped over the trail of ants and went to the well. I hit the reset button on the electrical panel and listened to the sweet sound of water rushing through the leaking pipes. Again, I swatted away the ants, closed the door and padlocked the iron grate. Human supremacy had again overcome all odds. I laughed at the vultures as I walked back up the hill. Another day in Nicaragua. 2006 Friday October 27 I met with Martin who was handling getting our household goods and vehicle through customs and also our residency papers. We learned it would be at least two more weeks before our papers would be in order. We may have to go to Costa Rica for three days since visitors are only allowed in Nicaragua for 30 days without residency. The Nicaraguan bureaucracy is slow and bewildering but we are having as much trouble with getting the proper documentation from the USA. If I had it to do over again, I would have completed everything before leaving the states. Nicaragua requires a letter from my employer that states the amount of my pension and it must be notarized with an embossment (not a stamp). It then must be sent to the Nicaraguan consulate in Washington DC then forwarded to Nicaragua. My former employer had great difficulty producing the document. It is the same with the rollover of my retirement savings. My employer must send an authorization letter for me to sign then they have to send my full amount as a check to my address of record. You can imagine how long it takes to get a letter forwarded to Nicaragua. A full month goes by before I realize that the authorization letter has not been forwarded. A week of fruitless calls to the USA gets me nothing but an answering machine that records my tale of woe. Finally I connected with a human and begged for assistance. He asks if I’m near a fax since he can simply fax the form to me. Since I’m sitting in a realtor’s office in SJDS, the fax arrives a few minutes later after I explained how to do an international call. After reviewing the fax, I asked the person on the call to please kill the other gentleman that had been helping me before since he had lost me five weeks. I signed the authorization form and used DHL to express the form back to the pension center. I also had to have a Nica lawyer notarize my signature but that is another long story. 2006 Monday October 30 Another day in Nica land. We take a cold shower, check our clothes for critters and make some breakfast. Still living out of our suitcases we decide to take another bus trip to Rivas. While in Esteli we had learned of a hotel that was for sale in San Jorge which is just a couple miles from Rivas. I contacted the person listing the property and made an appointment to see the hotel and some other properties. Sam is a gringo and a very friendly guy. We first visited the previously mentioned hotel and I was impressed with the establishment though Amy was not. It had a very large swimming pool, an outside bar, eight small rooms to rent, a large hall with bunks for backpackers and a small owner’s house. The asking price was $90,000. The kitchen needed to be rebuilt but the dance floor did have a revolving disco ball. Sam then took us out to Lake Nicaragua which was only a few miles away. It is the tenth largest fresh water lake in the world and used to be an inland sea. It is the home of the rare fresh water shark and many other species of fish. The view is rather spectacular with the twin Ometepe volcanoes jutting out of the water having last erupted in 1957. Around 35,000 people live on Ometepe. We looked at three lots on the lake with each being around 1.5 acres. One was a bed and breakfast but it was very old with shared bathrooms. It would require a lot of work. The second one had a small home on it but no legal electricity. I liked it since it was covered with palm trees and fruit trees such as grapefruit, oranges, limes, papaya and mangoes. It was right on the water with a view of the volcanoes. The last lot was the most beautiful and it was within walking distance of the dock for the ferry to Ometepe. Afterwards, the three of us retired to a bar and swapped tales over beers. Eventually we caught the bus back to SJDS. 2006 Tuesday October 31 Today we ran out of cooking gas. The stoves here run on a container of propane similar to the backyard grills in the states but with a much larger tank. We decide it is time to go to SJDS, replace the propane tank, get food, check on the outside news and return some emails. Our neighbor is going our way so we ride in the back of his pickup as he takes his daughter to school. One of the pulperias sells gas so that is taken care of quickly but the tank is heavy so we leave it at a friend’s hotel. This hotel has WIFI so we use the laptop to check on the news around the world and return some emails. We’ve run out of books to read and a friend’s partner has started a small library for the town including a room full of English language novels. There are a lot of interesting books so we choose two to check out. Time to head for the market which is two blocks away. With cooking gas and a functional refrigerator we can buy some perishables and begin eating better. Once we get our vehicle we can begin shopping in Managua where they have a PriceMart with much lower prices. Getting eggs home is always an interesting proposition since they put them in a plastic bag. Today, we are true Nicas and get the eggs home without breaking one. Have I mentioned how my laptop has become our best friend? Having little with us, it can entertain us by playing music during the day and DVD movies at night. Even when there is no electricity it can work off batteries for about four hours. Not sure what we would do without it. The sunsets are usually spectacular viewing from our patio but tonight it is really beautiful. It is Halloween but no trick or treaters come to our door. 2006 Wednesday November 1 Mike owns the house in front of us and is a surfer from Rockaway beach outside of New York City. He has recently arrived for three weeks of surfing and fixing up his house for rental. A good surfing beach is about 15 minutes down the road and he invites us to accompany him today. Like everywhere the roads are rough but we pull into a bay which has a nice vista. While he is preparing to surf by waxing his board we head out over the dunes. It is hard to describe such wonderful beaches since it seems the entire Pacific coast is one beautiful beach with very few people on them. The first 100 meters is all sand then the next couple hundred meters is rocky crags followed by another sandy beach. Sometimes the sand is black, sometimes tan and one beach had a mix of both. There are no boats in the water and very few surfers. A peaceful morning is spent just walking the beaches, watching the crabs skitter around and reading a book. A few hours later we return to our starting point to ride with Mike back to the house. It is a hot day so we all visit another neighbor and cool off in his pool. 2006 Thursday November 2 We decide to take the bus to Rivas, a taxi to San Jorge then take the ferry to Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. The ferry has seats for around 50 people with another 10-12 seats on top in the open. There is also open space for around four-five vehicles but today a very large truck is being driven on. It is a very peaceful crossing lasting just over an hour but the views of the volcanoes are striking. I’m sitting on top with three backpackers from Germany. The only other traffic on the lake is a tugboat returning from the opposite direction. Why are there so many motorcycles and cars yet so few boats in this country? As we rumble along, the volcanoes loom ever larger but the lake is too wide to see the opposite shore. To the south you can see the Costa Rican mountain ranges. The Ometepe dock is on the other side of the island in the town of Moyogalpa. We were warned there are no ATMs on the island. Upon our arrival, we are besieged by taxi cab drivers and since we had spoken to someone in San Jorge about hotels, there is a sign being held up by one of them that says “Mr. Bush”. Since President Bush was not on the island I assumed it was for me. The driver introduces himself as Will and he appears to be a cousin of Hector whom we had talked with in San Jorge. He agrees to take us to the Charco Verde hotel on the west side of the island. The trip to the Charco Verde hotel is about ten miles but the road is completely paved so the ride is smooth and the countryside, beautiful. The taxi driver is trying to convince us to use him the following day for a tour of the two volcano islands but we reserve our decision. We eventually arrive at the hotel that is lakeside. There is a large open air restaurant bar under a thatched roof with a view of the mainland. We check in then are taken to the next door building, climb the steps to the second floor room. It is very rustic but it has A/C and even hot water. Charco Verde is located near a preserve and a lagoon so we hit the trails to see the natural sights. We quickly run into the three German backpackers that had ridden the ferry with us. Overhead were monkeys everywhere but they were friendly and did not throw their feces at us. Leaving the backpackers behind (apparently Germans are more impressed with monkeys) we continued down the trail through the forest or jungle. What is the difference between a forest and a jungle? Boa constrictors come to mind but I’m sure there is more of a scientific definition. The lake is to our right and the lagoon is now on our left. We decide to get closer to the lagoon but there are various unknown creatures jumping into it as we approach which reminds us that there could be alligators so we return to the trail. We may not know the difference between forests and jungles but lagoons are normally in scary, dark stories while lakes are associated with sailboats, happy families and such. The trail is long and goes up and around hills but eventually leads us back to the lake. All we had to do was find our way back to the hotel. To test our resolve, we took a different trail back and apparently the trail had not been used in a while since we kept running into spider webs. This dilemma was solved by having Amy lead the way. After all, she had been in the Girl Scouts while I had been in the 4H Club which did not teach me any forestry skills. Eventually we exchanged positions due to her making some kind of comment that men should lead, etc. The usual bullshit! Eventually we return to the hotel. Two beers later we feel much better and the sun is setting so we decide to just stay and have dinner. That night we cranked up the A/C to sub-polar temperatures and jumped under the covers. The following morning we enjoyed a hot shower. Just like old times! We decided to take the tour of the islands with the taxicab driver. I won’t bore you with all of the various sights and scenes but it was very tranquil and very nice. As mentioned previously, the east side of the island is very calm with a flat lake but there are many bugs. The west side is very windy with choppy waves but then, no bugs. We contemplated moving to Ometepe but with our luck, the volcano would erupt again and the next ferry would not be due for several hours after the lava arrived. We eventually returned to Moyogalpa and took the next ferry back to San Jorge. A short taxi ride back to Rivas and we caught a bus to SJDS. 2006 Sunday November 5 It is presidential election day. No alcohol sales all weekend. Over 80% of the voters turn out to vote. You can tell who has voted since their thumbs are dyed black for the fingerprinting to ensure everyone votes just once. When was the last time 80% of the voters turned out in the USA? By 6:00 PM it is clear that Daniel Ortega has won, to our surprise. Fireworks are going off while cars and trucks full of young people carrying the Sandinista flag race down the streets and roads. The election appeared to be calm and fair. He will take office in January, 2007. The USA-backed candidate, Monteleagre, calls upon Ortega to wish him success even though Monteleagre had used some underhanded campaigning such as warning Nicas that the USA may stop money being sent from their relatives in the USA to family back in Nicaragua if he is not elected. The John Lennon song of “Give Peace a Chance” is blaring from every radio including the truckmounted speakers that are being driven through every town in Nicaragua. Ortega’s platform is to relieve poverty and he has stated that foreign investment is crucial to accomplish that. The major discussion for the gringos is what the effect will be on the real estate investments. We all expect a softening especially by those that still live in the USA or just visit for a few weeks at a time. There is major disagreement whether there will be a major downturn in values but we’ll just have to wait and see. Some investors are selling low and leaving the market which has created some buying opportunities. We are being swamped by emails that state everything will work out fine. The USA media is having a field day with the Bush administration since their candidate lost. I know my family is concerned so I call my Dad and tell him I’m concerned for his safety since President Bush is still president and Ortega’s approval ratings are higher than Bush’s. If it gets ugly, the Costa Rica border is only an hour away from SJDS but we expect no major issues at this time. 2006 Tuesday November 7 This walking to town for a loaf of bread is getting old and we still don’t know when our vehicle and goods will be released from Customs. We agree that we need to buy a motorcycle so I caught the next bus to Rivas. What kind should I buy in a country that has few mechanics and fewer spare parts? At the high end are Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis that would have the highest resell value in that order. In the middle tier are the Korean models that have exchangeable parts with Suzuki and at the bottom are the Chinese models. At least that is what I’m told. Then we must decide on the size. My plans are to only use it for short trips to the market and to visit various beaches but it must be big enough to allow me to take Amy with me on some trips. I have no desire to cruise along at 70 mph then hit some oxen crossing the road even if the potholes allowed me to attain any speed. I visited three bike shops and everyone is having a promotion so prices are pretty good. I had thought I would not want a Chinese motor cycle or “moto” as the natives call them as they are half the price. I shopped around and finally bought a small Honda since I thought it was a real possibility I would be trading up to a larger moto and resell value was important. Unknown to me, buying the moto was the easy part. The rest of the day was spent doing the paperwork such as paying the various fees to government agencies, getting the required insurance, police inspection, registration, police identification, etc. etc. At the end of the day of standing in lines I realized I would not be home that night so I called a neighbor and asked him to inform Amy I would be staying in Rivas overnight. The next day was also spent in various lines using my wonderful Spanish but I still was not finished. Remember that everything closes down from noon to 2:00 PM for siesta. Apparently the police had a problem with a tourist buying a moto. Anyway, I told them I would have to go home that night then return in the morning. On that drive home I learned how to drive my moto. It is easier to avoid the potholes on a moto than in a car. The following morning I had my moto mama, Amy, jump on the back and we returned to Rivas. Just before noon we had completed everything and I was legal. I would be allowed to drive on my South Carolina license for one year then would need to get a Nica license. That afternoon we returned home triumphantly while honking the horn to get dogs and other animals out of our way. 2006 Saturday November 11 We’re starting our seventh week in Nicaragua and still living out of our suitcases and they said we wouldn’t make it two weeks. It is almost the end of the wet season and the weather is getting cooler. No snow in the forecast but the nights have become perfect for sleeping. We have A/C but have never turned it on yet. It has become quite pleasant. I get up at sunrise around 5:30 AM every morning, make a pot of coffee and watch the surf hit the rocks in Nacascola Bay in front of me. Even though not visible I can hear the pounding surf from the SJDS Bay around the bend. The howler monkeys scream in the morning for no apparent reason and hundreds of green parrots rush overhead but sometimes close to the ground as they head south only to return in the late afternoon. The large Magpie Jays are everywhere in the trees making sounds like gurgling water and the Great-tailed Grackles play in the trees all day. We have not yet identified the giant blue birds, yellow birds and white birds that swoop overhead. High above all the rest, the hawks and Turkey Vultures soar in the constant sea breezes. I spotted a large white animal crawling in the trees near our well. Including the tail it is at least five to six feet long but no one seems to be familiar with it unless it is just an albino monkey or possibly a sloth. What an interesting name for a species. How would you like to be part of the sloth family? Even the insects are unusual. All different colors and sizes with especially large butterflies and moths. I didn’t know butterflies made sounds until we ran into these cream colored ones that crackle like snapping fingers as they dart at each other. Fireflies are everywhere at night. Do they fly south for the winter? Perhaps there is too much time on my hands but I’ve taken an interest in ants since there are so many kinds of them down here. The little black ones and the large red ones bite but the rest are just industrious and very efficient, especially the leaf-cutting ones. I need to perform some research since I never realized how intelligent they appear to be. After stepping on a red ant, dozens of black ones appear to carry off the remains. How can something that small coordinate its movements to have five or six of them, some having to walk backwards or sideways, carry the carcass back to the nest? I know people with less coordination ability. 2006 Sunday November 12 We had just gone to bed and are awakened when several headlights shine into our home from different directions. There is a pounding on our door and screaming voices but we can’t understand what they are saying. So much for two weeks of immersion Spanish! There is the sound of breaking glass and we now realize the fears that had haunted us since our arrival have finally come true. Several men come into our bedroom and by making gestures and using Spanglish, indicate we are to get dressed quickly and bring our passports. It’s been a good life and I’m less scared than I thought I would be though I’m concerned for Amy’s welfare. We are hastily rushed outdoors and pushed in the back of a pickup truck flying the Sandinista flag. Even now, the truck radio is blaring the Beatles’ song “Give Peace a Chance”. Looking around in the bright moonlit night we see trucks are also at several of our gringo neighbors’ home. Who would have thought this would happen so soon after the election and before Ortega took office? Memories of the Carolinas rush into my head and I wonder why I chose Nicaragua of all places. Even while the truck is bumping down the pot-holed road I think that I’ll never hear the end of this from our friends if we survive. Amy looks scared but strong though she clings to me as we quietly watch as our abductors whisk us away. Will the media hear about this or will we be part of that mysterious group that just disappears from the face of the earth? No, I’m being too dramatic. Surely, they would not harm a US citizen. Two young men are in the truck with us, one with a machete and one with some type of automatic rifle. The younger one looks familiar and I may have seen him in SJDS during the past few weeks. We keep hoping the Marines will suddenly appear but right now we just want to make it through the night. I had thought of bringing a gun to Nicaragua but I don’t think it would have made much difference. Was this happening all over Nicaragua or just in SJDS? With screeching tires we stopped in front of the Casablanca Hotel where we saw many of our gringo friends being herded into a large room. Apparently some of them had resisted since there were apparent bruises on some of their faces and a few were bleeding. The men were separated from the women which really scared me. I was quickly singled out and rushed into a small room. I was stripped naked and tied to an old wooden chair then a bucket of water was poured on me. On the table next to me was an old car battery with wires connecting the terminals to two large nasty clips. What could they possibly want from me that would require such coercion? My fears were all realized as the young man from the truck smiled, took the clips and first attached one to my ………………………. Sorry about that tale being spun but so many people expected that to happen to us when we moved to Nicaragua that I didn’t want to disappoint them. The Nicas are very friendly and we are still enjoying ourselves. Another day in Nicaragua. 2006 Mid-November Like any beach environment we have settled into a life where the hours go by slow but the days go by fast. San Juan del Sur (SDJS) is a slow moving little beach town which is grudgingly being propelled forward by gringos buying cheap land and creating developments in the hope that Nicaragua will follow Costa Rica’s path to riches for tourists, real estate speculators and retirees. At this time, the real estate market is in total chaos. Beach front or spectacular ocean view properties are the most desirable but prices for those two segments can range from $2,000 an acre for ocean view to $300,000 for a small ocean front parcel. Being in a development will ensure you have water, electricity and sewer. For some, being near a town of any size is important to ensure you can buy groceries and visit an occasional restaurant. SJDS is about the only sizable town on the Pacific coast and its population is less than 20,000. I believe the major issues are gringos buying on impulse and the fact that there are very few people moving to Nicaragua. The former issue is easy to understand. When you are standing on a knoll overlooking a beautiful beach it is easy to picture yourself in a scene from the film, “From Here to Eternity”, wrestling with your lover as the waves break over you. It is a no-brainer to buy that dream for $20,000 as the early arrivers did. That buyer sold his dream to the next dreamer for $75,000 and so on until we get to the present point where $200,000 still sounds reasonable. But this isn’t California, the Bahamas or even Costa Rica. There is still no reliable electricity or much of any infrastructure and you probably will need a four wheel drive vehicle to get to your property unless you are in town. Many buyers build a home then try to rent it out which may be possible during the brief high season but the fact is that it will remain empty for most of the year. The developments are getting more popular for the previously mentioned reasons and the presence of security but then there will be home owner’s dues. I’m sold on Nicaragua but some of the beach property prices are out of line for Nicaragua but, as always, the market defines the price levels. At this time there are a lot of developments appearing along the beaches and there are the beginnings of 4-star developments with golf courses, spas and shopping villages. One will even have a Jack Nicklaus course and a high-end hotel. Not bad for a country with only one golf course last year. This brings us to the second issue which is going beyond the catering to the tourists and start convincing more people to move or retire here. Nicaragua has a violent history but no more so than many other countries. How many present governments were not founded on revolutions including United States? People don’t know where Nicaragua is and is still associated with red bandanna guerillas even though presently Nicaragua is rated one of the safest countries south of United States. With proper management Nicaragua could be the breadbasket of the Americas with its fertile fields and varying elevations. If we are able to make ends meet I would like to purchase a farm later with fruit trees, a regular crop such as pineapple, some horses and some domesticates such as cerdos (pigs) and ganado (cattle). Interior land is still quite cheap supposedly $500-$600 per manzana when buying large tracts of land. A manzana is 1.7 acres. The trick is to find a good farm manager. I’m not interested in living on the farm or making a lot of money from its production, just somewhere to visit and get fresh food once in a while. Eventually life goes in a full circle since I grew up on a farm. I can see myself riding down a dirt road in my ox cart fabricated out of the rear end of an old Chevy pickup being passed by tourists from the states. A few would slow down and take my picture thinking it was a typical Nica scene. A very few might be envious of a life that is not regulated by corporate goals and frenzied consumerism. 2006 November - Dia de Las Hormigas (Day of the Ants) The concept of time travel very quickly creates a paradox of impossibilities. The most commonly considered paradox is if you could go back in time, what would happen if you killed your grandfather before your father was conceived? You, the time traveler, would never had been born thus you would not have traveled back in time and around and round it goes. We could get into parallel time lines or infinite probabilities but that is too deep for this story. Still, it is easy to see why many think time travel will never be possible because the slightest change in the past could reverberate and amplify through all future time lines destroying what is our present reality. As they say, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings could cause a chain of events that destroys a universe. Today, we may have caused a major restructuring of the future by ending millions of futures. As I was preparing for my daily cold shower I noted a steady stream of ants parading across the sink from our bathroom window. There were thousands of them in the window frame and going outside, the stream led to a huge nest of workers and eggs in the ground. Briefly, I thought that there is a purpose for the myriad of the little lives trying to make it in this world and that the eco-system depends on the smallest of creatures with their contributions perhaps being unknown to each of us. Thinking again, I grabbed a can of Raid and killed the whole nest. Something in the weather that day must have aroused the industrial nature of ants in our vicinity. Later, that morning I saw what looked like a pool of black oil spreading on our patio gathered around a large vase where we had planted a small palm plant. A nest had started at the base of the pot and it appeared they were determined to take over our entire house. This time without thoughts on altering possible futures, I sprayed them all and thus ended two major empires in a single day. If destiny had ordained that the ants were a little smarter and/or humans were a little smaller, would they have had as much disdain for our lives? 2006 November - A Trip to the Big City San Juan del Sur (SJDS) has the many small pulperias and a central market where you can get fresh fruits and vegetables. I love fried maduros which are very ripe plantains for breakfast. Still, there is not a large variety of foods to choose from and some items are expensive in a small store. Periodically, the gringos make a trip to the capital city of Managua where you have the La Colonias and PriceMart to provide the stuff you expect from a Harris Teeter or A&P. Managua is a good two hours away and without a vehicle, it is difficult to bring back boxes of food. A friend invites us on one of their weekly trips if we pay for the gas. We create a list of life’s necessities such as licorice, case of Coca-cola, pasta and hot dogs, among other things. We feel like an episode of the Waltons and I was going to town to spend my last two pennies on candy at the general store. Why did people in the old days have such bad teeth when candy was so rare? Might it have something to do with brushing daily or the invention of plastic since brushing with a horse hair toothbrush doesn’t sound appealing due to the fact that breath mints had not appeared yet. At 6:00 AM we jumped into Clemens’ KIA pickup truck and head for the big city. The first 25 kilometers are slow due to the condition of the road. It is almost fascinating to watch cars, trucks, small herds of cattle, ox carts, motorcycles and even semis weave back and forth trying to avoid the potholes. The two lanes of opposing traffic have no semblance of order yet the faster traffic is constantly passing in both directions. Motorcycles are the fastest since they can more easily dodge the deeper holes. At Rivas we jump on the PanAmerican highway which is a good highway that runs along Lake Nicaragua with the twin volcanoes of Ometepe looming to the right of us. The top of the volcano Concepcion is usually hidden by clouds but today it is clear. After another half hour the volcano Mombacho comes into sight behind which sits the city of Granada on the northwest shores of Lake Nicaragua. But we are taking the southern route into Managua and pass through the university towns of Jinotepe and San Marcos. At Santa Teresa we are again at a high altitude and the fog is very dense. At some times of the year the fog mixes with the sulfuric vapors from the Masaya volcano which eats the paint off some of the structures. Not sure why people live there. We approach the southernmost barrios (suburbs) of Managua where the richer Managuans live and it is quite beautiful with valleys and peaks like western North Carolina. There are many farms here. This changes quickly to the heavily congested streets of Managua but let me regress for a time. On the way here we have the opportunity to learn more about our neighbor, Clemens. He and his family are from East Germany and had the rare opportunity to learn the Spanish language then relocate to Nicaragua as part of a partnership program. This program was to create friends with other then socialist countries such as Cuba and parts of Africa. East German students were already required to be fluent in English, German and Russian. Clemens’ assignment was to teach auto mechanics in Jinotepe and arrived in the 1980s. When the Berlin wall came down he simply stayed in Nicaragua where he moved to SJDS and started a small hotel and construction business. His daughter went to school in San Marcos and is now studying in Managua. It was interesting hearing another side of the story of the divided Germany. In any case, we are now in Managua and Clemens needs to first stop at his bank. The guards there check him with metal detectors before allowing him entry. If you plan a career of bank robbery I would suggest doing so in the states rather than in Central America. Your chances of success are no greater but you would probably survive the episode. The weaponry of Nica bank guards is most impressive, much more so than the security detail at the Wachovia building where I formerly worked in Charlotte, North Carolina. We eventually arrive at the La Colonia food store and it looks very much like a grocery store in the states. We quickly fill our basket with things we have not seen for a while like gummy bears, pasta, some Christmas chocolates for friends, potato chips, etc. In the meat section there is a large pile of raw chicken parts. Like fruits in the stores back home, you take a plastic bag and select the parts you want and pay by the pound. I don’t think the FDA or the butchers’ union would approve of that back home. We are true Nicas now and chicken is our favorite meat. Lo and behold, there is a small section in the store selling PC games. It is a small selection of mostly outdated software but it is a very beautiful thing to me. I do have idle time at night and would love to have some of my old games where I create and destroy galactic civilizations with a simple click of the mouse. Quickly I scan the titles they have available and there, like a jewel among the baubles of computer delight, is Domination, the turn-based game of you against the artificial intelligence of the computer to determine the existence or extinction of mankind in the latter years of the 21 st century. For 289 cordobas I can again assume the mantle of command of forces barely conceived in the present day. With this game to sharpen my wits, I can and will survive in Nicaragua. Amy was less impressed with the possibilities but was happy to hear my glees of delight. Next we went to PriceMart which is just like SamsMart in the states. It is good for items you buy in larger quantities and it even has decorated cakes. Another shopping cart is filled and we load up the pickup truck. It is time to pick up Clemens’ daughter and get something to eat so we head for the Galleria which is a mall with stores similar to Belks and Macys with very high prices for Nicaragua. We browse for a while but our interest is in eating at the food court which has various versions of Nicaraguan fast food but also has a Subway and Burger King. Amy and I order the Whopper combo #1 and it tastes so good though we can not finish it since we had piggedly ordered the upsized grande portion. Time to head home. We take a different route home that takes us through the farmland surrounding Managua. With the hills and valleys of different elevations you see all types of vegetation being grown from coffee to pineapples to cabbage to plantains. It is quite beautiful! Due to the proximity to Managua, the market is close. On the way home we stop to visit the family that Clemens’ daughter stayed with for years while attending school in San Marcos. While there are varying degrees of wealth and poverty, the town has some beautiful old colonial homes, some of which have been fully restored with large courtyards. Two hours later we arrive back at our home in SJDS and we carry our goods up to the house. A very interesting day! Since we have gotten to know Clemens and his family, we now often visit his hotel and restaurant for breakfast or dinner. 2006 November - A Visit to Granada We had first visited Granada four or five years ago and at that time had not been impressed but it is a different city now. First, a little history. Granada is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas having been founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba. It is located less than hour from Managua and is on the northwest shore of Lake Nicaragua. This was the home or the target for many attacks by buccaneers in the 17 th and 18th centuries. Granada was also burned by the retreat of William Walker as he attempted to become the president of Nicaragua in 1856 supported by his mercenary army from the United States. In a small way, Granada is the San Francisco of Nicaragua. Restaurants, a developing art community, old churches and colonial homes with the orange clay tile roofs surround the historic central park. A thriving industry is the restoration of the old colonial homes. A typical city block is a continuous concrete wall accented by huge wooden doors every few meters. Walls are painted with anything from typical earth colors to bright pastels and a different color defines where the neighbor’s home begins. As mentioned previously, you would open a door and you may see the interior of a hovel or a stately, restored home. A typical colonial home has a living area in the front with chairs, rockers or sofas with room for the entire family and visitors. In the evening the massive doors are opened to the street to admit the cooler breezes but more importantly, to allow conversations and greetings with neighbors and people passing by. Amazingly similar to the midwestern small towns with the front porches of the 1950s in the states. Behind the living area, the typical colonial would have a courtyard open to the sky where flowers and tropical vegetation grow. The more modern homes would have a small swimming pool and hammocks are almost required by law. The bedrooms are usually arranged around or behind the courtyard with closets being relatively rare. Instead, large wooden wardrobes or armoires are more common. The kitchen is usually outside but under a roof. The central market is unbelievably hectic and always busy but you can find everything there. The city is beautiful but rustic with the cobblestone and pavered streets in the old fashion of the Spanish European ciudades (towns). There are poor sections of town but the lake is to the east and the volcano, Mombacho, looms into the clouds to the south. As a result of volcanic activity eons ago, there are over 300 isletas (small islands) surrounding Granada. Many of the wealthier Nicaraguans and some gringos have summer homes on these private islands accessible only by boat. Obviously we were impressed by the artistic growth of Granada. We like SJDS but the primary activities are real estate speculation, drinking, surfing and watching the waves crash into the crags of the rocky shoreline. Not a bad life but we did not see commercial possibilities for a business other than a restaurant or bed and breakfast and there is a lot of competition. We did not need to live in SJDS to continue the real estate speculation and caution would need to be heeded due to the results of the presidential election results. We began to look at homes in Granada. One of the first was a beautiful new condo which while impressive, it did not feel right when you plan to live in the oldest city of two hemispheres. We saw several old colonials that would need major restoration to be livable, meaning renting for at least 6 to 12 months. Then we were shown the home on St. Lucia called La Flor Panamena which will be easy to remember since it has the name carved in wood over the front door. I knew as we entered that Amy would not let this one go. Picture a corner property with 20 foot pastel green concrete walls with five massive nine foot wooden double doors to the street. The exterior walls are three foot thick which should ensure we can resist any future pirate attacks assuming only small cannons are used and they miss the doors. Three of the exterior doors lead to the sala (living area) which I believe is around 25 by 30 feet including a loft bedroom area with a spiral staircase. Another exterior door leads to a master bedroom with a small built-in kitchen and bathroom. There is a ceiling fan light but the ceiling is so high that small clouds obscure the view. To the rear of this room is the obligatory massive wooden door which leads to a large outside kitchen but under a roof. Behind the kitchen is the courtyard with various palm plants and flowers that bloom all year long, There is a small swimming pool with a large lion’s head fountain framing it. To the rear of this is another bedroom with a bathroom. To the side of the courtyard is the internal entry to the garage though it looked to once be the garage of a nobleman. Imagine a large wooden garage door to the street with little windows that can be opened to see if it is a friend or foe wishing entry. For some reason, most garages in Nicaragua have beautiful tiled floors and the, at least, 20 foot ceiling is a beautiful parquet wood. There is a full bath and a loft bedroom area. If things get rough, we can live in the garage and rent out the house. Before you get the impression that this is out of House Beautiful magazine, remember that it was built in 1853. Hanging a picture or changing the path of an electrical line in a concrete wall is no small feat. But we like it and made an offer with the condition that all fixtures and furniture would remain. We don’t have the money to furnish a house like this and we counted over 15 rockers and rattan chairs alone. The house is located three blocks off the central park in the historic section and about six blocks from the lake. There are quite a few cars on our street but often there are horses and small herds of cattle roaming along so you have to be careful where you step. The next day we are pleasantly surprised to find our offer has been accepted though I then think perhaps I should have offered less. Part of the reason is that real estate prices are a little softer since the presidential election. Now we must sell our SJDS home as quickly as possible. Unlike the states, you do not have to give an exclusive listing to a realtor so I quickly create a flyer having pictures and a list of the amenities for our SJDS home. Loading this to my handy dandy pocket electronic chip I raced around the real estate offices and offered it to anyone wanting to list it. Even in Nicaragua, computer devices are a wonderful thing. Now we sit back and sweat it out. 2006 November - Thanksgiving Weekend We didn’t have any trick or treaters come to our door Halloween night even though I left the porch light on. It was just as well since the only candy we had found so far locally was hard candy or a strange, syrupy tasting confection made with sugar cane and leche (milk). Something about the heat seems to disagree with chocolates. We can do without the cold but we couldn’t completely ignore the holiday season. Even if many people disagreed with our choice of lifestyle, we still have the human need of requiring the consumption of turkey and dressing at the latter end of November. Fortunately, friends in Rivas invite us to celebrate with them. We said we would bring the wine, beer and a large dessert since desserts are still relatively unknown around here. Somehow all of this would have to be transportable on a motorcycle and creating the dessert was a challenge even for Amy since we had few cooking utensils. She found a cake mix and even a can of frosting but the surprise would be a custard or flan filling. Our friends would be very impressed. The night before, Amy prepared the two cake layers though each bore little resemblance to the other. Perhaps subtle placement of the flan filling and expert coverage of frosting would cleverly hide the structural problems of the dessert. Amy is a very good cook but missing the proper tools taxed even her considerable talents. We then turned our minds to how we would carry this unstable structure 25 kilometers on a motorcycle. We could think of only one possibility and that was the emptying of the water bucket which could then be strapped to the back of the motorcycle. There was even a lid to keep the bugs off the frosting. There are so many solutions when you really begin using your brain. We went to bed thinking how brilliant and resourceful we had become, living in a strange land. Unfortunately, during the night there must have been a small earthquake in our refrigerator since huge fissures had appeared across the cake which was more than the flan filling could cope with to hold together the dessert structure. At first we fooled ourselves into thinking the delicious taste would make everyone forget the disturbing appearance but if it could not survive a quiet night in a refrigerator, what would be the results of a 25 kilometer motorcycle ride on an unpaved road in our water bucket? Nice try but forget it! Our fallback gambit was to go to Rivas the night before the Thanksgiving dinner and buy a cake at a bakery. We arrived in Rivas and got a room in a hotel next to the largest grocery store. There we purchased our beer and other necessities but also got directions to a bakery further down the street. There, we used our excellent grasp of Spanish to indicate our needs but we were limited to colors since flavors had not yet been covered in class. We chose a large white cake with small yellow chickens drawn in the frosting which seemed appropriate for Thanksgiving which has no equivalent in the Spanish set of holidays. I guess the Pilgrims only landed in the United States. Unfortunately, the young lady dropped the selected cake as she removed it from the display. The result was that it then looked vaguely similar to the dessert we had left back home in our refrigerator. No problem since we now knew that the Thanksgiving dessert was cursed regardless of our intentions. After the young clerk apologized, we selected another similar dessert which we carefully carried back to the hotel. We cranked the A/C to the maximum cold setting and slept solidly with recurring dreams of cranberry sauce (I prefer the jelly type). We arrive to our friends’ home at around 9:00 AM the following morning. He is a gringo with a Nica wife and daughter, I believe this is his sixth wife which would suggest she is a rather optimistic person and I thought the divorce rate in North Carolina was high. Very friendly, outgoing people and along with a few other friends we spend the four hours of turkey-cooking time drinking wine and beer while regaling each other with stories of our travels and adventures. Finally, a voice with a Spanish accent is raised that the pavo (turkey) is ready. Never was a meal so anticipated yet I expected differences due to the locale where we would partake of this meal but I was mistaken. There was salad, a huge pavo, cranberry sauce (the jelly kind), mashed potatoes, thick gravy and the two types of bread dressing (that cooked separately to a toasty texture and that cooked within the bird). It was one of the finest meals I had ever had. After three returns to the food table I felt I had had enough and realized it was truly a day of thanksgiving. Some customs are meant to be kept even if in another country. 2006 November - Suitcases Are Not Enough We are asking a reasonable price for our home in SJDS in order to sell it quickly. Still, it does not display well since there is no furniture and our few belongings are arranged on the floor and on the counters. A realtor at ReMax (yes, they are even here) suggests that we should purchase some basic furniture and has a friend (of course) that provides that service. Hauling a large rattan sofa on a motorcycle is no easy task and the wind resistance would be considerable. I’m getting to the point where I’m actually jealous of the Clampetts at least having the old truck to move their things to Beverly Hills. This friend would provide an estimate for the desired furniture, go to the market at Masaya to purchase it then deliver it to our home. The price was reasonable so we agreed. Amy selected a dining room table, six chairs, a rattan love seat, two rattan chairs, two rockers for the patio and five assorted small rattan tables for night stands, coffee tables, etc. The following day everything arrived and we finally had a partially furnished home. After living with just a bed, refrigerator and a water cooler for eight weeks it felt quite luxurious. Now I’m able to compose this diary on a table seated at a chair instead of on a stack of old tiles. Something this notable required the purchase of an item I had been thinking of for several weeks, a table lamp. The house had ceiling light fixtures but being able to read at night while lying in bed would be the cat’s meow. I headed into SJDS on my motorcycle thinking life was actually very good. Now where would they sell lamps? They are commonly available in Managua, Granada and even Rivas but it would prove to be a daunting task in a fishing village. I started at the ferreterias which are hardware stores but without much hardware. We’re not talking Home Depot here. There might be bags of cement, some cans of paint and a bucket of various sizes of screws. Using my now considerable Spanish and a pantomime of reading a book while making clicking sounds, they quickly grasped that what I needed was a lampara but no, they did not have any. They sent me to another ferreteria but no luck there but suggested going to one of the tiendas de variedades (variety stores). There are probably a dozen of these variety stores in SJDS and apparently they can sell anything they wish since they did with little rhyme or reason. At the fourth one, they actually had three different small lamps to choose from. One was a large soccer ball but I didn’t want to go with the sports motif. One was a large plastic letter of “B” which was tempting since my last name is Bushnell but that seemed childish when I was looking for a more mature design. I settled for a small ceramic lamp that was a design like those out of a small rural motel in the 1950s. It was tricky getting the lamp and paper shade strapped to my motorcycle. Halfway home, one of la policia was yelling something and pointing behind me. Apparently the plastic bag had slipped out of my strap and was dragging behind my cycle. The shade was torn and had a black smudge from rubbing against the rear tire. I thought it actually completed the realistic look and that part could be turned to the wall. That night, I contentedly read my book while basking in the 75 watts of light from my new, if slightly damaged, desk lamp. Could a complete collection from an Ethan Allen furniture store provide a more comfortable existence? I think not. 2006 November - Bribery Coast A major obstacle to getting our cedulas (residency), which must be completed before our goods can be released from customs, is an official letter from my former employer stating I will be receiving at least $400 a month in pension per household. How difficult can that be? Well……….. as you may know, large corporations usually do not answer their phones and when the message states they need to return a call to Nicaragua, forget about it. Luckily, one of the realty offices in SJDS allows free calls to the USA so I kept trying until I got a human. And it could not be just any old letter stating my pension, it had to be notarized with an embossment, not just a notary stamp. Remember the good old days of the heavy stamped embossment on your official papers? Anyway, the human resource department agreed to have the official letter notarized then mailed to my former office in Charlotte, NC where I had asked a friend to overnight it to Washington, DC where I had another friend who would take it to the Nicaraguan consulate. All of this happened but the Nicaraguan consulate stated that the US Department of State must first verify the notary public signature. For this transaction the Department of State office is only open a few hours on certain days and eventually, my friend had to return to Nicaragua. To ensure the transaction was completed, he gave the documents to his mother to complete the routing. This went on for a couple weeks before we realized my friend’s mother had no intention of doing this for us since she did not know me from Adam. I don’t blame her since she certainly owed me no favors but I still will curse her each Mother’s Day for several years for wasting my time. Luckily, I had had a copy of this pension letter forwarded to me in Nicaragua and gave it to my expediter. An expediter, for a fee, helps you with all of the paperwork in Nicaragua such as establishing residency and getting your goods out of customs. You can see what a wonderful job this person had done for me in expediting my paperwork now that we had waited over 10 weeks. My vehicle’s battery was probably dead and the tires rotted from sitting in some parking lot near the Atlantic ocean. Back to the story, I handed the letter to my expediter and stated that I’m sorry the letter does not have the proper accreditations from the USA and the Nicaraguan consulate. But…. this is Nicaragua, a country that is firmly based on the concept of bribery. I think it is noted in their country’s constitution somewhere. This letter would have to do and please find out how much it would cost for someone to bend the rules. I felt like the Godfather making an offer that could not be refused. The next day I was informed that $200 would suffice and the problem disappeared. We are now hoping to receive our household goods and vehicle sometime early January. Hopefully, they mean 2007. 2006 December - Rock-throwing Retard Every town and city has its well known character that everyone knows for their queer or unusual behavior that lends color to the flavor of the town. Many of these characters later go into politics. SJDS has the rock-throwing retard who we will call Pablo for simplicity. Before we begin the story, you should know that most Nicas have a soft spot for anyone with mental issues. They will tolerate even the destructive nature of an unbalanced person much more so than in the states. It is amazing how even many of the gringos will put up with Pablo’s antics. Pablo likes rocks and shiny surfaces, especially when they are put together. SJDS is a small town and Pablo can usually be seen walking around the streets in his orange football jersey. When Pablo sees a window or mirror he usually picks up a rock or stone and throws it with fairly good accuracy though he prefers windshields. A friend first ran into Pablo years ago when building his small hotel. He came home to find all of the windows were busted on the street side of the hotel. The following morning Pablo was back trying for the front windows. Our friend found he received no sympathy from other residents or from the authorities and in fact, was considered thoughtless in giving Pablo a hard time. He came up with the unusual solution of buying Pablo an ice cream cone and luring him on a bus to Managua. Managua was three hours away and having no money, would have to walk back to SJDS which usually took two to three weeks. So, several weeks of security could be purchased for the price of a small cone. We gather often on the patio of this hotel to catch up on news from tourists and other gringos. Last week we were discussing business opportunities with a new acquaintance when Pablo came along and launched a rock at our acquaintance’s vehicle’s windshield and effectively smashed it. To show the difference in attitude, our acquaintance just shrugged his shoulders as if that was just the price of living in SJDS. Hmmmmmmm, what am I missing here or are we just too materialistic in the states? To be fair, the police have tried to lock up Pablo after one of his shattering experiences. I was told he just crapped on the cell floor and threw the feces at la policia which got him promptly released. It is a poor country and there are few state health facilities for handling people like Pablo. We recently rented a car in SJDS due to some appointments we had in other cities. Amy had just returned the vehicle and it was inspected for damages. As soon as the inspection was completed and signed off, Pablo fired a rock which dented the hood and crushed the windshield. That boy can throw! The car rental security guards saw Pablo throw the rock but did nothing to detain him. Also recently I caught Pablo getting ready to smash the mirrors on my cycle but caught him in time. Perhaps we need to chill out but some of us have considered taking Pablo to a small island and leaving him there. Periodically we could send food and mirrors to him. 2006 December - It is the Law Right after food and water but before human companionship, one of the greatest needs in Nicaragua is a hamaca (hammock). I had always thought they were comfortable but until moving here I did not realize they were a human necessity and some people state it is the law to have a hammock. Every home and hovel has at least one hammock hanging in the shade. As noted previously, from noon until 2:00 PM, most businesses and activities stop for the siesta. Even I, a former workaholic, try to stop in the middle of the day and rest or at least read a book for a couple hours while in a hammock. There are two basic different types of hammocks available, the single and the double. The single type usually is of a solitary color, often looks like a fish net and is very comfortable. It wraps around you like a second skin and can lead to an “out of body” experience. The double hammock is what is better known to people from the states. It is much wider with a wooden strut at each end with drilled holes through which the strands are threaded. This makes it a much flatter lying surface much like the Pawley’s hammock of South Carolina. It can be a single color but the Nicaraguan hammocks are known for the bright interwoven colors with side drapings that are quite beautiful. It is a fashion statement. Most homes have several hooks in their exterior walls or columns to allow the hammocks to hang from multiple positions since the shade and sun are constantly moving. The distance between hooks should be four meters. There are two cautionary adages of wisdom offered in using hammocks in Nicaragua. One, beware of falling asleep in the shade long enough that you awake in the full sun. The smell of grilled meat may alert you but this is not a certainty. Two, drink your beer after entering the hammock. It is easy to become overconfident after one or six beers that you jump into the hammock and find yourself on the ground. Weight distribution is a skill in mounting your hammock that requires a level of sobriety. Besides ownership of a hammock, you may be surprised that they do have some laws here that you should heed. For example, both passengers in the front seat must have their seat belts fastened or it is a 200 cordoba fine. This can be amusing seeing two people in a pickup truck with their seat belts fastened securely yet there may be 12 people riding in the back, some sitting, some standing and some hanging off the side. Motorcyclists must wear a casco (helmet) though the passenger does not. Even South Carolina did not require wearing of helmets. My first ticket in Nicaragua was for this transgression. I had hoped la policia would accept a bribe but I had been snared by the only honest policia in the area. They take your license to ensure you pay the fine. You receive a yellow ticket for minor infractions and a red one for the more serious. You take the ticket to the local bank and in this case, pay 150 cordobas (about eight bucks). You then take the receipt to the police station to get your license back. Being a novice criminal, it was a bit of an ordeal to get my license. I went to the SJDS police station and using my stellar grasp of the local language, asked where do I get my license back. I thought they said “arriba, arriba” which means high or upstairs so I tried to find a door that led to the second floor but they were all locked. I went back to the police officers and asked again. This time I understood them to say “ a Rivas, a Rivas” which meant I had to go to the Rivas police station which is 25 kilometers away. A couple days later I had my license back. Since the local police are not familiar with the US state licenses, we were advised by the other gringos to make many color copies of our driver’s license then laminate them. This way you can give la policia a license copy and don’t bother ever paying the fine. I had not been able to do this since I don’t have my PC printer/copier yet out of customs. This will soon be remedied. 2006 December - Motorcycling Through Nicaragua AAA is still not available in Nicaragua to help motorists and it can be a ways between gas stations so minor problems can become major issues. Amy and I decided to visit the local surfing beach and get some sun. It was a nice day but on the return trip the rear tire of my motorcycle seemed to be losing traction. Sure enough, the tire was flat. Luckily, we were only a few kilometers from home so Amy walked and I nursed the cycle slowly home. The next morning I was able to get the cycle to SJDS without ruining the tire and was able to track down a place that fixed tires. With just a screwdriver, el senor was able to remove my rear wheel then separated the tire and inner tube. A large hole in the inner tube was fixed and a few minutes later, everything was reassembled as good as new. All for a grand total of 30 cordabas (about $1.50) but I gave a 10 cordoba tip. We decided then we would make no long trips with two large gringos riding a small motorcycle. The following week I had to make another trip to Rivas and decided to take the back roads scenic route. It was a beautiful day and was enjoying waving to the natives, scooting around pigs and chickens and passing the occasional oxcart loaded with fruits or firewood. There are three wooden bridges on the way to Rivas and on the way to the third one I passed a group of young people and one of the young women yelled out “cuidado” which means be careful. I was not sure why she made the cry or was just making small talk to the strikingly guapo (handsome) gringo on the motorcycle. Unusual for me, I heeded the message and slowed down just as I approached the third bridge. Thank goodness, since the first two boards were missing the entire width of the bridge creating a gap of nothingness for the first two feet. After my heart started beating again, I cautiously walked my cycle across the six inch wide bridge strut. I thought briefly of returning to the young woman to thank her, asking her to marry me and bear my children but there had been enough excitement already this day. I took a different route home from Rivas. 2006 December – The First Year Ends Almost three months of living out of our suitcases but we fully expect to receive our vehicle and household goods sometime in January. Our stories may sound adventuresome to some of you but actually, the past three months have been restful providing us time to rethink our futures and priorities. We could never go back to the corporate world in the states though infrequently I feel the need to hit a golf ball. After all this time, I’d probably shank it. Every night we sit on the patio and watch the sun set over the ocean. At night it becomes cooler with ever increasing winds expected through February sometimes requiring us to get under the covers. With so little ambient light the moon shines very brightly making it light enough to read by. The skies are so clear that shooting stars are commonly seen with one night our seeing over 50 shooting stars in less than an hour. There were some with long tails, some white, some yellow and some were red. The sky looms larger here without the city lights. We’ll miss this after we move to Granada. We are not destitute, just few material belongings. Still, our families and former co-workers sent us care packages for Christmas. We devoured the news magazines, books, licorice and game magazines. For Amy’s Christmas gift I finally found some art supplies that allowed her to start drawing and painting again. Unfortunately we were not able to send out family gifts this year which we hope to rectify next year. We did send out a few Christmas cards. Postage was not that much but the local SJDS post office only had low denomination stamps which meant they plastered stamps all over the envelope except over the address and return address. I think it doubled the weight of the card. Should be a unique souvenir for the recipients. It is New Year’s day and we have been in Nicaragua for 13 weeks and out of work for 17 weeks. We have set up a budget of around a $1,100 a month before taxes and bribes but we have learned to live without many of the unimportant material things so much a part of our previous lives. In 2 ½ years we can begin getting money from our IRAs and in 5 ½ years there may be social security. We hope to start a business here that will provide some income and if we do not visit the states for more than four weeks a year, there are generous tax exemptions. By February we may be settled in and ready to receive visitors. We extend an invitation to everyone and hope some of you will visit. Despite President Bush’s staff’s declarations, it is quite safe here and guns are not required. The best time to visit is October through March since the rest of the year is very hot and dry though you are always welcome. If you bring black licorice, expect an especially warm welcome from me. This is an excellent country to visit for those of you looking for young wives. They love gringos and think someone on social security is a wealthy person. You are expected to support the entire extended family, though, but if you change your mind, Nicaraguan law only requires you to give 25% of your wealth to the divorced wife. This could be a major savings for some of you. We look forward to a different new year and wish all of our friends and family the most prosperous of new years. If you have read all of my diaries to this point, you really should find a new hobby and get a life. Feliz Año Nuevo!