Category Archives: Daily Life

Part Two – Figuring It Out Along The Way – Life In Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

At the end of our last post, Part One (read it here) we promised that we would continue our “Not the Same As” list comparing the differences between life in the States, no longer United, and our newly adopted country of Portugal.  Sure, we could paint word pictures about the picturesque cobbled streets, the single lane country roads that curve and beckon one to explore, the giant storks’ nests upon the chimneys and roofs and on and on. Storks, Lagos, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Those were the things that piqued our interest about this part of Europe and made us fall in love with the country but they don’t answer the questions we had when we first moved here.  Our questions were a lot more prosaic, dealing with life on a day-to-day basis but, seriously, we didn’t even know enough to ask them.  So, here’s another list to answer the question of, “What’s it really like to live in Portugal?”

Shopping.  Not to make light of the homeless situation in the US, but we’re from the land where grocery carts serve as portable storage trailers.  It’s not unusual to see someone walking along the edge of the road with a cart piled high with their belongings and what these runaway carts cost the store is another matter altogether. However, Portugal is the first country where we ran into “tethered grocery carts.”  (Evidently Canada has them but, as our Canadian friends remind us, they’re ahead of the US on a lot of things.)  Upon seeing these for the first time, we hung out for a bit (trying to figure this new wrinkle out) before watching someone insert a coin which released the chain holding the carts together.  In a “Duh” moment it took us a few trips before we found out we could get our money back at the end of our shopping by inserting the key at the end of the chain again whereupon our coin would pop out.  The store even gives away plastic coins so you can spend all your money right there!   Anyway, we think these are clever and we like to dazzle our American friends with our new parlor trick when they come to visit.Tethered grocery carts. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Fruits, vegetables and bread.  We love them all and they seem to have so much more flavor than what we’re used to in the US. The upside (or downside depending what side of the argument you’re on) is that they spoil much faster because the fruits and vegetables are ripe when they’re picked and, as the commercials used to promise, at “the peak of their freshness.”  A loaf of still-warm bread is best the day of purchase because there are no preservatives.

We buy our eggs in a half carton, six at a time, off an aisle shelf; they have yolks so yellow they’re almost orange.  Likewise, our milk, which comes in a waxed cardboard carton, is found on a shelf on another aisle. Neither is refrigerated.  Since we were properly indoctrinated on the need to refrigerate dairy products, it took us a while to accept that it really was okay to ingest them.

And then there are the bright red ticket machines. Rather than lining up in front of the butcher or baker’s counter, people pull off a numbered piece of paper which marks their place and mill about.  The number comes up on a display or the baker/butcher yells it out.  The whole system seems to work fine.  A quirk however (and we’ve been ignored a few times) seems to be that you need to pull your number even if you’re the only one standing there.  Ticket machines are ubiquitous: at the post office, the doctor’s clinic, pharmacies, phone or cable stores and any government service where people might line up.

Obviously, the subject of shopping could take a whole post but we’ll stop after one, two, three more observations.  1) Bring your own tote bags or you’ll need to buy some. 2)  Remember to sign up for the store’s loyalty plan and have your card scanned at the beginning of your purchase.  It can save you a lot of money.  3) And, like most countries, it’s usually not a matter of one-stop shopping.  Pingo Doce is our favorite store and we buy our hamburger, plump chicken breasts and most of our produce from there.  Continente gets our business because it’s closer, we can buy plain Doritos corn chips, Knox spice mixes and (no kidding) sometimes hard-to-find celery as well as some household goods.  We shop at Aldi for the best priced walnuts, feta cheese, hard German salami and the adventure of seeing what goods (socks, plastic ware, toys, umbrellas, jackets, and once even sewing machines at €90) are in their center aisle bins each week.  This week we scored with an electric heating pad! In Lagos, we have our favorite, butcher, bakery and fruit and veggie stands.

Driving. Stop signs and traffic lights are the exception in Europe.  Here, roundabouts rule. We first ran into roundabouts in the island country of Curacao and were confounded, not in small part because the signs were in Dutch.  Our GPS directs us to, “Go around the rotary” and “Take the second exit” in a proper British accent but it took us a while to get the hang of roundabout etiquette.  We thanked the gods above more than once last winter that we could practice during the low-season while the streets and roads were mostly empty. (Here’s a big tip: We take turns driving so that we can change-up who’s yelling at who.)  Here’s a handy diagram that might help.

Source

Roundabout Etiquette  (Source)

And, speaking of tips, after one exits a roundabout in urban settings, there’s usually a white-striped crosswalk.  Pedestrians have the right-of-way of course, but it’s easy to tell who’s local because the Portuguese assume we’ll stop while tourists look both ways first before setting a foot on the road.  Once we’d “mastered” some of these driving proficiencies, we were still puzzled about the occasional honk we’d get when we signaled to make a left-hand turn.  Finally, we realized that we hadn’t seen many people making them … Another “Duh” moment because the roundabouts also serve as a way to change directions and avoid most situations requiring a left-hand turn.

(Not-so) Common Courtesies. There are of course the usually handicapped parking spaces but there are also signs for preferred parking spaces for pregnant women and parents with children.  And, after some internal fuming about the old women who sashay their way ahead of us in line at the grocery, we learned there’s a common practice of allowing the elderly to go ahead in line. Kind of nice, right?

Preferred seating and priority service

Preferred parking for pregnant women and parents with childrenAt the doctor’s and dentist’s offices, the appointments are on time or only a little late.  And, we kid-you-not, the staff apologizes if they’re running late. We usual get a text message reminder a few days before scheduled appointments and we’ve received calls saying that the staff is running behind and asking us if we could come in later.

At the Movies.  One of our small pleasures, now that we belong to the leisure class, is going to the movies.  Lagos has a small movie theater, right above one of the Chinese stores (that’s a post for another time) with two “salas” or rooms with screens.  A new movie comes to town each week on Thursday and usually there’s one or two for adults, including first-run movies in English with Portuguese subtitles and something good for the kiddies.  The tickets cost about €4 each and a large bag of popcorn is under €2.  We’ve heard they make American-style popcorn occasionally but so far, we’ve just had the typical Portuguese popcorn, a caramelized, slightly sweet treat that’s grown on us.  At this price, we check the offerings weekly and usually go to the matinees where, most times, the “crowd” is less than ten people so we get preferred seating too. This week the offerings are Office Christmas Party, Sing! and the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Because Christmas is right around the corner and the holidays have begun, we may have to give up our preferred seating and rub elbows with the crowd to see Rogue One.

We’ll close this two-part rambling post on basic life skills for expats in Portugal with a note on Time.  Continental Portugal is in the Western European Time (WET) Zone, usually abbreviated as UTC + 00:00.  (Note for you trivia fans like us: UTC stands for Universal Time Coordinated and is the same as GMT or Greenwich Mean Time.)  A reminder to our son in Denver, Colorado: This means we’re seven hours ahead.   Portugal observes daylight saving time and uses the 24-hour clock so appointment times are written as 09:00 or 14:30 rather than 9 AM or 2:30 PM.  The date is written in a DAY-MONTH-YEAR format so today’s date is written 17/12/16 rather than 12/17/16.

So, on this day, a gorgeous, mostly sunny, Saturday afternoon with the temperature high of 17 °C on 17 December 2016 in Lagos, Portugal, we say “tchau!”

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

 

 

 

Part 1- Figuring It Out Along the way – Life in Portugal

lighthouse at Ponta de Piedade in Lagos

Lighthouse at Ponta da Piedade in Lagos

Traveling and expating means that we have to/get to learn new ways to do things. We, however, like to think of it as a fun exercise in “mental stimulation” that AARP recommends to stem the onslaught of dementia.  Each country we visit has a unique twist on how certain things are done and, despite how Urban Dictionary defines different as a “pseudo-polite way of saying something is unpleasantly weird or unacceptable,” we like to think that differences just are.  And in Portugal, our list of “Not the Same As” keeps growing.  Here are some basics.

Language  In Portugal, the official language is Portuguese.  As we’ve looked through various books and online teaching classes we’ve learned that there are two variants:  Brazilian Portuguese and the correct choice, European Portuguese.  Here in our part of the country, the Algarve, most people speak English, a fact that has made us very lazy but here’s hoping that (someday) we’ll magically acquire the ability to twist our mouths and tongues into the acceptable shapes and pronounce suitable sentences in the correct tense.  So far we’ve evolved from English to Spanglish to Portuglish.

Money  In the US the dollar ($) is king but in Portugal the euro (€) reigns.  What we like are the bills which are different sizes and colors depending on the denomination and, rather than one euro notes, there are one and two euro coins.  The downside is that your wallet can get very heavy, very fast.  Right now, since the dollar is strong, the conversion rate is almost at parity with a euro approximately equal to $1.06 dollar.  This means, with nineteen countries in Europe using the euro, travel is a pretty good deal right now.Euros. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Plugs, sockets and adapters Like all of continental Europe, Portugal uses the Europlug, a two round pin plug for 220 – 240 voltage that fits into a recessed socket.  Since most of our electronics are from the US, we have a variety of adapters that we’ve picked up here and there and, because our wall sockets are never quite enough or conveniently placed, we use extension cords.  With our adapters, and especially with the surge protector on top, it makes for an inelegant and precarious tower.    Inelegant extension cord, adapter and surge protector. Photo by No Particular Place To GoMeasurements  Growing up, we both remember hearing our teachers say that the United States was going to change over to the Metric System “any year now.”  Decades later, that still hasn’t happened but we’re getting pretty darn familiar with the concept.  Our weather forecast and oven setting are in Celsius versus Fahrenheit, our mileage is in kilometers versus miles, our drinks are in liters and our weight is in kilograms (so getting on that scale isn’t quite the shock it could be).

Our home  Forgive us for a sweeping generalization, but it seems that in Portugal and the parts of Europe that we’ve seen, everything is smaller, including the houses and apartments. The refrigerators are narrow and it’s common to have the refrigerated section on top and the freezer below.  Washing machines are half the size of their American counterparts. There are no garbage disposals – or none that we’ve encountered.  Dishwashers are rarely installed in older homes but are more common in newer, higher-end apartments or refurbished homes.  And clothes dryers are even rarer – maybe because they’re expensive or because utility costs are high.  We have a fold-up rack for drying our clothes, a few lines on our rooftop terrace and a good supply of clothes pins . And speaking of clothing care, ironing boards and irons appear to be in every hotel room and rental.  In the stores, there’s a whole offering to the mighty iron. Instead of central heating, homes have heaters of many varieties and various efficiencies in selected rooms and doors to close off the warm areas from the cold. On-demand hot water heaters are the norm as opposed to up-right tank water heaters.  Upright vacuums are rare and much more expensive than the canister types and we have yet to see a wall-to-wall carpet.  It’s more common than not to see bidets in the bathrooms and let us tell you, we’re getting spoiled with our heated towel racks too. (Okay, heated towel racks probably aren’t common but it hasn’t taken long for us to get used to them.)  And the beds … all we can say is, “Where are the box springs and pillow-top mattresses?”  Beds are low, usually a mattress on a platform, which might be good for the back but less-so for the soul.

Cars  Cars are smaller too.  Perhaps so they can wend their way through cobblestone roads designed for a donkey and cart without knocking off the side mirrors? (Of course, there’s no need to ask how we know that those side mirrors pop right back on when you do that, right?)  And another thing. There’s a whole generation or two in the US who have no idea how to drive a car with a manual transmission but here’s a heads-up – get some practice. We’re not quite sure why but it costs more to rent or buy a vehicle with an automatic transmission – or it would if you could find one.  Lucky for us, we hail from the generation that needed those shifting skills occasionally.  But, speaking of skills, we’ve discovered that parallel parking is something we could both use a good refresher course on.

Which bring us to – Gasoline.  Portugal has both the self-serve stations and attendants who’ll help you feed the hungry beast or pick you up after you faint at the price.  Because, in Portugal, gas prices are a whopping €5.60/4 liters which is roughly a gallon. And with OPEC back in the gas boycott business, prices may escalate soon. community garbage cans. Photo by no Particular Place To Go

Garbage  Yes, we have recycling!  Instead of a trash and recycling bin for every home however, the garbage cans are grouped together every few blocks for common use.  It’s a sort-as-you-go system and the bins are clearly marked with the refuse that goes in them.  They sit on a concrete pad that is cleverly lifted so that the containers below can be emptied.  Our bins are three blocks away which gives us a good reason to take a stroll every day

Garbage seems like a good place to end the first part of our “Not the Same As” list.  Next post we’ll continue and talk more about our daily life in Lagos, Portugal, including driving, shopping and entertainment (some say they’re the same thing 🙂 ) and small courtesies.  To quote a couple of lines from singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, “It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same…”  Here’s to the differences!Tiled house, Ferragudo, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

To the Manor Born: The Parque da Mina

We spend a lot of our time as travelers imagining.  Imagining what it might be like to live as a modern day Bedouin in Jordan, a Berber in Morocco, a farmer or fisherman eking out a living in Nicaragua, Vietnam or Russia.  We have no problems at all imagining where we would go if money were no object or the style in which we would travel.  And, since we both have a passion for history, we imagine what it would have been like to live at the height of the Mayan or Incan civilizations, travel along the Silk Road or learn about wondrous new places during the time when the New World was being mapped in the Age of Discovery.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of castles and fortresses that are located in Portugal and ruins dating all the way back to the Romans and even earlier. So it’s easy to for us to close our eyes and imagine the lives of the nobility and history’s “social influencers” – what it would be like to stride our way through one of the great halls, feast at a grand banquet in one of the dining halls or sleep in one of the bed chambers of these vast estates.  It is, however, harder to frame a picture of the day-to-day lives of the common folk who tended the sheep, brought in the crops or sold their wares at the markets.  And there’s surprisingly little written on the lifestyles of those wealthy merchants or the “middle class” of Portugal just a few centuries ago.Parque de Mina

Our chance to find out more about how the common folk and upper-middle class lived came when we took a detour on a recent day trip to Monchique, located in the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique of the Western Algarve.   A winding mountain road took us through forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees, past small farms and the occasional groupings of homes.  A sign for Parque da Mina at the edge of the road invited us to take a right-hand turn and piqued our curiosity so we turned and followed the paved road a few meters to a small parking lot. Upon further reading of another sign we found the tempting promise that we could travel back in time and see how one, land-owning family lived in this area of Portugal.  We ponied up the price of 10€ each (which seemed a bit high but goes towards maintaining the property) and set off down the path as it began to lightly rain, towards the family home turned museum and a glimpse of how life was lived many years ago.

Parque de Mina

Our first sight of the 18th century home made it very clear that this was a property lovingly and carefully maintained.  In typical Portuguese fashion, the home has been passed down by the original family through the generations and the current guardians of the estate have generously shared their family history and opened the home as a living museum to the public. And what a treasure!  We were welcomed at the door by a smiling woman who gave us an informative tour through the old home that was packed full of practical artifacts used in daily life, some extensive and eclectic collections that reflected the family’s interests and some more modern curiosities like the old Victrola we found in one room. Parque de Mina - 18th century Portuguese farmhouse

The tour began with the heart of the house, the kitchen, furnished with a lovely old table and chairs, earthen bowls and a collection of plates decorating the whitewashed walls. Here the meals would have been prepared by those in the employ of the family and the large fireplace in the background serves as the focal point.  Look closely and you can see the keepers-of-the-hearth sitting and enjoying a bit of a rest. Parque de Mina, near Monchique, PortugalNext was the dining room with a rich Oriental rug and intricately carved furniture.  (A maid stands ready to serve some traditional Portuguese dishes.)  Parque de Mina

We passed by the sitting room where the family may have sipped some tea and learned of the news of the day from (what seemed to us to be so quaint mixed in with the formal antiques) a vintage radio perched upon the side table. The bedrooms were tastefully decorated and, since Portugal is a traditional Catholic country, the saints protected and watched over the family while they slumbered.Parque de Mina

 

Parque de Mina,

And then came our favorite room, obviously where the family must have spent their time together playing music and maybe cards, listening to the Victrola, reading and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  Here was their collection of musical instruments and, a sure sign of how times have changed, several species taxidermied and displayed.  A large sea turtle shell stood upon the floor next to the backbone of some huge, unknown mammal.  Viewed by today’s cultural norms the display might be a bit macabre but the home would have reflected the tastes of a well-traveled and sophisticated family who enjoyed and celebrated a good life. Parque de Mina

 

Parque de MinaHere and there were nooks with a favorite collection of the patriarch’s pipes, displays of fine china and a whole little room devoted to an enormous assortment of finely carved and embellished, antique wall and table clocks. We peeked into a room where the sewing machines and flat irons stood at the ready and learned that all families of means employed their own personal seamstresses.Parque de Mina - sewing room

Passing by the office we noticed a colorful painting that, upon closer inspection turned out to be a grisly little scene of hunting dogs bringing down a wild boar and the master with his knife at the ready, lunging in for the kill. A bit removed from the more genteel side of life but another glimpse into times past and the country life of long ago.  Parque de MinaThe last part of the tour took us down a winding staircase to the immense cellar with doors giving access to the courtyard and grounds which, again, had several informal exhibits showcasing the different industries that would have been necessary to support the household. As one of the wealthiest and largest properties in the Monchique region, Parque da Mina had agricultural fields, forests and a working mine that produced iron-ore and copper.

Parque de Mina

The old trades of the region were showcased in several displays of many fine, old agricultural tools and machines whose uses we couldn’t begin to guess at.Parque de Mina

In one corner an animatronic wine maker greeted us in Portuguese and we admired the nearby wine making apparatus and learned about the local liqueur, medronho, made from the fermented berries of the arbutus tree which grows on the property. Parque de Mina

And, in a country where wine flows as abundantly as water, we saw many old barrels and casks used to store vintages of years gone by, some marked branco (white) and tinto (red).Parque de Mina

One of our favorite displays was of a general store and its contents that dated (our best guess only) from the 19th and 20th century.Parque de Mina

And finally, despite the threat of more rain showers we ventured outside to explore some of the outdoor exhibits and especially liked the old vintage vehicles scattered about the grounds.Parque de Mina

 

IMG_7734 (800x477)

Sometimes it’s more fun to take a detour to explore a place you’ve never heard of rather than stick to the original plan and, for us, this turned out to be one of those times.  It’s rare to see a historic home so meticulously maintained and to find so many authentic and vintage collections displayed in each room. We arrived at our original destination, Monchique, a few hours later than we had planned but very pleased to have taken a trip on the “Way Back” machine and imagine what it might have been like to live in this rural area of Portugal long ago.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

The Postman Rang Twice: The Portuguese Side of a Resident Visa

It’s a strange adjustment to go from three years of nomadic living without a fixed physical address, no utility bills and long and short version answers to the question “Where do you live?” to being tethered once again with a lease agreement, an address and a postal box which receives our utility bills and occasional bank correspondence.  We managed to live virtually paperless for three years since we had to carry everything we owned and now we have folders neatly organizing the papers that tie us to an address once again.

We wrote here Setting Up House in Portugal about the small frustrations of settling into our apartment and the strange acronyms NIF, our fiscal numbers which establish our financial existence in Portugal, and NIB, which shows that we have a bank account. Carrying these acronyms on their separate pieces of paper allowed us to get connected at one of the local businesses, MEO, for phone, cable TV and internet.  And we were really on a roll when we rented a car to take us to new and fascinating places.

Next up on the tasks of settling in came our mission of changing the utilities from the landlord’s name to ours.  Fortunately, we weren’t pressed for time as finding the appropriate buildings was somewhat equivalent to the mythical snipe hunt.  It was difficult to program into the GPS directions we had for the city water company, Camara Municipal, which were, “It’s a big white building on the second roundabout on the way to Pingo Doce (a grocery store), across the road from the burned out building …”  When we finally found the building which, despite its size blended into the background due to its totally bland exterior and that we’d passed by almost every day, we almost high-fived each other.  Upon setting up our water account we asked the English-speaking clerk where we could find the electric company, EDP, and she pointed us in the correct direction.  Another place we wouldn’t have found on the GPS as there was a small space back in the corner of the Miele appliance store where two lecterns with accompanying paper shufflers stood: one for receiving payments due and the second for new accounts. Success again and we were on our last and final leg, Rolegas. The next day, energized by how relatively easy our changing our accounts had been so far we set off in search of the gas company following nebulous directions which read simply, “About six kilometers out of Lagos.”  Having googled the address we had a hazy idea of which way we needed to drive and a picture of what the building looked like.  We sailed by the building three times before we finally saw it using the roundabouts to change direction, missed the entry lane, retraced our route, finally arrived and carried out our business.

Since we’ve lived here we’ve learned to bring all of our folders because we never know what paper might need to be produced.  Each utility company needed our NIB and NIF numbers, our lease agreement and phone number, pictures of the corresponding meter (which we had stored on a tablet), passport information and a previous bill from the owner.  And, except for Rolegas where we ended up with a translator over the phone, everyone we dealt with spoke English and was polite, friendly and bent over backwards to make sure we got signed up with a smile.  Finally, all was done – until and when we decide to find a more suitable apartment and have to redo the whole process!4 month residency visa

4 month residency visaWe’d arrived in Portugal in November with our freshly stamped “long term” visas, good for a period of four months and due to expire in February of 2016.  We wrote about the documents that we’d gathered in the US to procure the initial visas that would set us on our path toward a Portuguese residency in this post, The Great Document Roundup: Starting the Portugal Residency Process. Now we needed to start gathering the documents we’d need to extend the initial temporary Residence Permit on the Portuguese side.  We checked the internet for a list what US citizens needed for this second step but once again we found the information to be inconsistent with what our attorney, Duarte was telling us.  Since it’s simply easier to go with the flow we put our trusting selves into Duarte’s hands.

First off was making the actual appointment with the Servico de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF) aka the Foreigners and Borders Service or immigration, a police service responsible for border control and the issuance of residence permits to foreign nationals legally residing in Portugal.  Since we live in Lagos our appointment with the SEF was in nearby Portimão and we scheduled our appointment about 30 days before our visa expired in case there were any glitches that needed to be resolved.outside of the SEF

We gathered the following documents to bring with us:

  • Passports with our current resident visa
  • Three-months of our most recent bank statements for an account that is in both our names
  • Rental lease agreement
  • The document with our NIF (fiscal) number
  • Proof of health insurance
  • Statement from the Centro Regional de Seguranca Social de Algarve This is Portugal’s version of Social Security, Social Services and Unemployment Insurance in the Algarve Region. Finding this office was another snipe hunt story where it was near the bus stop and behind the Maritime police station, etc.  Basically this document shows that we are not relying on income from the Portuguese government nor are we employed.  We presented our NIF number, our passports for identification and the employee gave us each a signed statement that said a record search showed we weren’t in their data bank.

We also brought a copy of our marriage certificate and 2 passport sized photos which were not needed.

SEF - Official # 1On the day of our appointment we took the train from Lagos to Portimão and Duarte came down from Lisbon to Portimão by train to make sure all went smoothly. We arrived within 10 minutes of each other and then shared a taxi to the SEF.  Our wait was no more than 5 minutes and soon we were chatting amiably with the SEF officer who spoke English. He filled out forms, made sure we had the required documents and then we stood in front of a kiosk which collected our biometric data: taking our photos (no glasses and no smiling so we look rather dour), scanning and recording our left and right index fingerprints and finishing with a retina scan.  We signed forms, one part of which authorized current background checks and then sat and chatted with a second officer who collected €157,80 from each of us, a total of about $350 USD for the both of us.  Note: The SEF only accepts cash or a Portuguese bank card.  After receiving a receipt, we were told that we should receive our Titulo de Residencia cards by registered mail within two weeks.

And so, ten days after our appointment the postman rang our outside bell a couple of times and we signed for our new cards which declare us to be bona fide residents of Portugal. WHOO HOO!  We have the country’s permission to live here for a year at which time we’ll go through the process once again and renew our cards for a two-year period.  In Portugal (as in the US) when things work, they work well!residence card

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Transitions, Changes and Americus the Beautiful

And then we waited … And waited… And … We were at loose ends after we submitted our application in late August to the Portuguese Embassy in Washington D.C. for a long-term visa.  According to the fine print in the application, the review and approval process could take up to three months. (The fact that we received our visas in under two months could be seen as testimony to the alacrity with which the Portuguese bureaucracy can move when it sees a couple of prime candidates for immigration.) But given this gift of free time, and we did after all have a car again, we decided to take a road ramble with only a loose itinerary, following our inclinations with no particular place to go.

Wyoming

Wyoming

Our time in the US could have been measured in the places we stayed: one rental apartment, two housesits, six guest rooms with friends and family and, lastly, fifteen hotel rooms.  We could have counted our time in miles spent crisscrossing the USA: approximately 5800 miles.  Or the number of states we drove through, seventeen, from Texas through Colorado to Washington and Montana and then through a part of the midwest and the deep south to Florida and finally to Georgia where we left our car with family. Or tallied the airport flight connections and boarding areas we sat in from the time we left Portugal in mid-July to our return in November, a mind-numbing seventeen.  We could enumerate the number of photos of old friends (friends old in the longevity of our association as well as longer of tooth) and family with whom we spent time catching up, laughing and playing “remember when?” or the countless pictures of breathtaking scenery and small town life as the miles rolled by.

Montana

Montana

Florida

Florida

During our sojourn we fell in love with our home country, this time as travelers seeing it from a new and different perspective after our three years spent out of the US.  The vast road system woven throughout the states, driving Interstate highways around the big cities and state highways through small cities and towns with their flags and banners displayed.  Friendly clerks at countless gas stations, waitresses greeting us with smiles and refilling our cups of coffee time after time, places where people take pride in their hometowns.

Livingston, Montana

Livingston, Montana

We whiled away an afternoon in Livingston, Montana where the Yellowstone River flows north from its headwaters in the Park through the Paradise Valley flanked by the majestic Absaroka Mountains. We stayed one night in Americus, Georgia and visited the site of nearby Andersonville Prison, a name synonymous with the horrors of the Civil War in our own country.

Andersonville Cemetery

Andersonville Cemetery

In nearby Plains, Georgia, yards had signs showing their support: “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.” Meanwhile, a Confederate flag hung side-by-side next to an American flag across the street from the Secret Service sentry booth outside President Carter’s family compound. In the other direction and a hundred miles or so down the road was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer home, “The Little White House,” in Warm Springs where he showed people that America and the world could be fixed again and hope could thrive.

Watching the nightly news and the Republican and Democrat debates told us what was wrong with the US – in divisive and contentious language and finger-pointing accusations.  But our travels showed us another story: what was positive, strong and right with our country.  Many things may be broken but there’s a lot that works and a lot of which to be proud.

Alabama

Alabama

We left the US this time with a deep appreciation for what it represents but glad to be resuming our lives in Europe, with the opportunity to learn about new countries and cultures, art and architecture as well as to meet new people and hopefully, become a part of a community.  And here we are, finally and barely a week into setting up a new life in Lagos, Portugal, transitioning from full-time nomads to traveling expats with a home from which to venture forth and return.

Anita and Richard

 

The Journey, Not the Destination and “Never Go Back”

in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - common hazzardThe Dominican Republic has three kinds of roads:  paved and smooth, once paved but now potholed and, the third, thinkin’ ‘bout pavement.  The first roads, double-lane and as nice or better than our highways back in the in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - toll road feesStates, are toll roads, distanced every 50 kilometers or so, with three to five little manned (or womanned) booths with the motorized arms that block further access until the toll is paid. We kept the smaller DOP (Dominican Pesos) bills and change in the console of the car for the frequent stops and the fare averaged about one-hundred pesos ($2 USD) depending on the direction.  Signs marking turnoffs and destinations were usually posted right at the turn to the desired road which resulted in the person with the best far-sighted vision playing spotter so that the driver could prepare his racing reflexes to make the correct turn.  Many times, however, we saw the sign too late, sailed by the turn and would have to double back…

Our drive from our temporary home base in Punta Cana followed the shoreline west towards Santo Domingo and proceeded smoothly on the toll road. We turned onto the second kind of road, “the once paved but now potholed” per our directions and headed more or less northwest towards the toll road to the “Amber Coast,” so named because of the huge amber deposits found in the north coast area.  The road lured us along unaware until … our teeth slammed together, our heads hit the roof of the car and our behinds thumped back into our seats. There were occasional grinding scrapes with the bottom of the car dragging as we crept from shallow hole to patched hole to gaping hole to speed bumps.  And this was still a well-traveled secondary road in the DR!

However, there’s something to be said about leaving the toll highway and slowing down along the bad stretches of secondary road.  We drove through small dusty villages seemingly out in the middle of nowhere scattered between farms and fields.  Many appeared fairly “prosperous” by rural standards, cement homes alongside the road with people sitting on the front porches, flowering bushes and neatly tended dirt yards. in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Further back off the road, houses were scattered between the trees with freshly washed laundry drying on fences or lines with surprisingly little litter to be seen.  But other places were scarcely in the campo - trip to Cabaretemore than shanty towns with shacks of rusting walls and roofs of corrugated metal.  We drove through groupings of sad and desperate hovels where the garbage, plastic bottles and trash had been mounded high alongside the dwellings that lined the road.  We could not avoid seeing the scenes of bleak poverty and decay; people here and there sitting under whatever shade could protect them from the glaring relentless sun overhead.Boca de Yuma - the drive

We referred to this bumpy, rutted roadway as the “Cement Factory Road” for the one industry we saw upon that route and we made a decision to avoid it on our return trip. Eventually we hooked up with the major interior toll road of the DR and drove through countryside rich and lush, beautiful and picturesque: the properties of the wealthy. Living fences of small trees interspersed with wire or intricate walls of carefully piled stones mined from the rocky fields enclosed herds of grazing cows and great horned bulls, horses with foals, goats and kids and the occasional pig.

living fence -wire strung between small, growing trees

living fence

We passed farms of papaya, sugarcane, rice fields and plowed land with mounds of rocks scattered and dug out and cleared for future crops.  Rolling hills, palm trees, beautifully shaped, canopied trees and trees topped with huge orange flowers were silhouetted against the blue sky, all contributing to the beauty of the setting.in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Near the city of Nagua on the northern coast the road opened up to the brilliant and varying shades of blue sea along which we drove for miles watching both gentle waves lapping the seaweed strewn wild beaches and waves crashing into rocky shores of uplifted and long dead coral formations. Back again to the “once paved but now pot holed” roads we made our way through urban Nagua slowly; small businesses perched on the road edge behind parked cars on both sides that frequently necked  the traffic down to one lane at time.  Streets angled out of the narrow main road with more stores and houses, scooters wove their way through the inevitable traffic jams and, everywhere, drivers laid on their horns. It was your typical traffic bedlam.

Cabarete beach

We spent three days exploring the tourist attractions in the popular beach towns of Sosua and Cabarete and then embarked upon our homeward journey to Punta Cana.  The map promised us a road that we hadn’t driven on the western side of Sosua which looked to be a feeder road to the major toll roads. Our selection may have been the correct route, but it turned out to be the third kind of road, the “thinkin’ ‘bout paving” variety. We jounced and bounced past small family farms and homes where people sat in the shade visiting with each other and (probably) commenting on the occasional idiot tourists with their cars scraping along the graveled, potholed, washboarded road.  After about a mile of this abuse and surrounded by a cloud of dust we stopped for directions.  Our elected guide was a grinning fellow, shirtless and washing his car with lackadaisical energy, swigging beer from a long neck bottle.  He pointed down the rutted road and said about an hour more that way would take us to the toll road headed south, explaining that the road was bumpy and slow but that it was better to continue on and saying like a drunken mantra, “Never go back.”  We mulled these dubious directions over and, after some discussion, decided to turn back anyway and take the known road.  And as we passed him, our guide’s look was confused as he gestured again down the road and shouted,”But it’s that way.  Never go back!”in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - bad stretch of road

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Housesitting: Parallel Lives in an Alternate Universe

Jokes houseIt’s rather strange to be house and pet sitters when you think about it.  We walk into a stranger’s house and make ourselves at home among their possessions and four-legged family.  We care for their treasures like we would our own, pamper and fuss over the pets, water plants and bring in the mail, converse with the neighbors and sometimes even add some of their friends as our own.  In short, we have a chance to sample and experience an alternative life in a new and unfamiliar city or country without a permanent commitment. How cool is that?

Joke's HouseAt the beginning of our stay in Curacao the security guard at the entrance recognized the vehicle we were driving but not us, and each new guard required the same explanation about who we were and where we were staying.  Shortly, however, a wave and nod and we’d be let back into the gated community with little fuss and a warm smile.  We learned some of the idiosyncrasies of the house:  the lighting system controlled by a remote, the combination stove/oven with the temperature in Centigrade that cooked with either gas or electricity, the washer with controls labeled in Dutch and the on-demand hot water heater.  We never did quite figure out the electronic gate of the fence that enclosed the small property and, if any neighbors watched our comings and Ninagoings we must have provided a small amount of amusement.  One of us would dance around with the control waving our arms trying to activate the “trigger” or light that powered the finicky beast. The gates would part halfway then slam shut and all the time the driver would be gunning the engine waiting to dart through whenever the gate god decided we’d been toyed with long enough.

And there were, of course, the three reasons our presence as house/pet sitters was required:  Grietje, Nina and Simba.  Simba, the big neutered Tom called our competence into question right away when he took off the second day of our stay for some nomadic traveling of his own that lasted Simbaabout two weeks.  He slunk back home thinner, wearing some battle scars and slowly insinuated himself back into the household as though he’d never left.  Nina, a feminine calico, had one eye (the other lost to an infection before her adoption as a small kitten) and loved watching us from her lofty heights on the refrigerator or the top shelf of the bookcases.  She also pounced on unsuspecting toes moving under the sheet early in the morning which was a rude awakening. And Grietja, a tortoiseshell, shed her hair in tufts and was ever mindful of her next meal, falling upon her bowl with famished enthusiasm.  All became our adopted family.

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Instead of a parallel experience during our stay in Curacao we had a rather bifurcated house sitting gig. hikingOne half of our duo, “Immersed”, entered upon a social calendar which included yoga, a charity walk-a-thon, weekly walking/hiking jaunts with a group up and down hills and along the coast and tea or coffee sessions following the outings. The less mobile one, suffering from a twisted knee right before our departure from Cartagena deplaned in hikingWillemstad appearing something like a reincarnated Quasimodo: upper body canting forward and to the right, back and hip in open revolt and the left leg a reluctant appendage at best.  “Twisted” spent the first several days of our stay semi-reclined, leg propped up, alternating the reading of historic tomes with fast-paced best-sellers.  When rest didn’t work we explored medical tourism in phases: a doctor, physical therapist and finally an orthopedic doctor with a magic serum dispensed weekly by a wickedly long needle.  In fact, the orthopedist complimented “Twisted” by casually mentioning that the x-rays showed the knees of a 45-year old patient – Blush! Blush!

And so, in between semi-reclusion and endeavors, the few house sitting activities and the care of our three feline charges we interspersed swimming, sightseeing jaunts by car exploring the island and ultimately on-foot wanderings around the barrios of Willemstad.  With the offending knee working as it should “Twisted” was upright and mobile, ready for future rambles.  In fact, the big downside to our house and pet sit in Curacao was ….

Leaving!Simba in the birdbath

By Richard and Anita

Life’s a Beach: Chillin’ in Cartagena

Sheer funjetties & unique beachesOne of the first things we noticed about the swimming beaches that run along the Caribbean coast of Cartagena was their unique configuration. Where the natural shoreline and urban development allow, jetties have been built with spacing that permit the tides to wash in creating half-moon shaped beaches perfectly suited to water frolicking. The only thing that upsets the tranquility of the water is a strong onshore wind which raises the swell of the ocean but does not seriously deflect from the enjoyment of the folks on the beach.

beach sheltersAt our favorite crescent shaped beach – our favorite because we had only to take the elevator to the lobby and walk across Avenida Santander – it was usually easy to rent a “tarpa”, a plasticized rectangle of blue or red fabric stretched over a movable metal frame to give shade. As we preferred to be there mid to late morning during the quieter weekdays there were usually about twenty to thirty of the canopied structures nicely spaced around our little swimming hole.   It set us back a couple of bucks but the fee was good for the day and they were rented by all because the sun would scorch you in short order. So if you weren’t in the water you were probably hunkered down in the shelter of your tarpa watching the fun going on about you.   happy girl

kids in bright suits

The kids, naturally, loved the beach. Tiny toddlers, at first apprehensive, saw even tinier tots playing in the shallows, splashing and allowing the waves to chase them. It didn’t take long for them to warm up either to the water or the fun; the water was not bath water warm but just a few degrees south, delightfully cool during the heat of the day. So the kids, either with or without their folks at their sides, became the stars of the show. In their neon colored swim suits with their unbridled exuberance they flapped and flopped about in the gentle surf, masters of their domain.

Boy at the beach

intent on their diggingThe older folks joined in the fun, as did we, venturing out farther into the waves and, of course, we couldn’t compete with the gleeful enthusiasm of a kid.  But really, we all became kids inside whether we dove headfirst into six inches of water, buried a brother in the sand, built castles and dug holes or jumped through the waves. It was all done with shouts of triumph and laughter.burying a bro

vendorAnd then there were the unexpected players; those not decked out in beach togs. These were the worker bees, thevendor - proud drones, the vendors and the hucksters, those who offered beach toys or souvenirs and outrageously priced massages as well as food and cold treats and provided for us as we frolicked in the sun or drowsed in the shade. For them, this was not a day at beach, this was their version of a day at the office. And while we knew that they had to make a living and checked out their goods we did little to abet their financial success on any given day.

vendors

Enjoying the playaBy Richard and Anita

An Urban Garden in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

Barrio GetsemaniWe turned onto a narrow street of brightly colored attached houses of cement and stucco.  Two boys played with their Barrio Getsemanirecent Christmas gifts of action heroes complete with sounds of warfare and annihilation. Potted plants were abundantly displayed along the raised edge of the paved road in front of many of the small homes in lieu of a yard and a woman tended her flowers while neighbors further on chatted, each sitting in front of their abodes.  The thriving bushes and flowers created an oasis on this street in the center of one of the lesser known areas of Cartagena. And overhead, strung between the homes across the lane of Callejon Angosto, from one end of the road to the other, plastic shopping bags in pastel colors of white, yellow, pink and blues fluttered gaily in the breeze, trapping the morning light, radiating a festive aura and creating both shade and, surprisingly, a tranquil refuge. We were completely delighted to see the lowly plastic bag, bane of modern existence, transformed into a fanciful and useful piece of beauty.

plastic bags in Barrio Getsemani

A portion of Getsemani is immediately adjacent to the old walled city of Cartagena that the tourists so love. It begins just across a major thoroughfare, Avenida Venezuela and online tourist websites as well as printed books give the area short Barrio Getsemanishrift. Yet it, unlike other neighborhoods such as San Diego, Boca Grande or the beach areas around Avenida Santander has not given way to the developers’ dollars and so it lacks the high rise condos, trendy stores and pricey restaurants found elsewhere. In this wedge-shaped neighborhood the common folk live, raise their families, attend schools and churches, save and spend their money, marry and bury their loved ones. For years, barrio Getsemani was stigmatized as poor and somehow unsafe for tourists. Yet we noticed on our visits that this was the mecca in Cartagena for the backpacker set; those young, mobile adventurists who flock to the barrio to take advantage of the clean, cheap hostels that thrive in Getsemani.Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani is also home to a large, multi-gated, fenced park established in 1811, Parque Centenario. It’s reputed to have a two-toed sloth, a large, aged iguana and a small troop of howler monkeys in amongst the trees but, although we looked hard, we neither saw nor heard any wild life. On our first walk through the park in the late afternoon we encountered the strong disagreeable odor of urine in some shaded stretches of the walkways and several rather disreputably dressed gentlemen, looking suspiciously like drunken vagrants, lying on the grass or benches and slumped about giving the vicinity an overall creepy feeling.

Parque CentenarioHowever, on our second visit to the park, a little after 9 AM, we actually talked about the song, What a Parque CentenarioDifference a Day Makes, as it reflected the changes we were seeing as we wandered through the park. People strolled about under trees pleasantly shading the pathways, grassy spaces and flowering bushes of green in the otherwise vastly cemented area of this part of the city.  Men sat upon benches talking quietly and a fountain sprayed water into a large pool.  Book sellers sat in front of little permanent kiosks that completely lined one side of the park and stacks of new and used books were displayed.  One gentleman’s attention was intently focused upon drying pages of a book by pressing a cloth to each page and fanning gently.  We examined the books, struck up conversations and smiled profusely.

Parque Centenario

Walking other streets within the neighborhood of Getsemani we nodded to friendly passersby, stopped to street sculpturewatch a craps game being played by several men on a corner sidewalk and admired a pretty little church, La Iglesia da la Trinidad.  One shaded and unnamed plaza had some whimsical metal statues of a dog chawing on a boys hip pocket, a drunk relieving himself in concert with a dog as his boon companion and a third of another borracho (drunk) proffering a drink to a not-too-close friend. Things that absolutely would not be encountered in the more prosperous, proper and staid old walled city. sometimes picturesque and charming precludes spontaneity and ribald humor!street sculpture

Here, in Barrio Getsemani, you’ll find wide-spread gentrification. It appears that the locals are resisting changes by working to preserve this remnant of an older, less attractive but still vibrant and thriving part of the city.  For now it’s a win-win for residents of the neighborhood as well as the tourists who have an opportunity to enjoy a grittier but character-filled corner of Caribe life amidst the hub-bub of cosmopolitan Cartagena de Indias. Viva el Barrio Getsemani!Barrio Getsemani

By Richard and Anita

 

There’s Something Fishy About Manta

tun on a stick statueManta, Ecuador isn’t a pretty city.  At its heart it’s a small fishing village that has grown into a substantial metropolis with an estimated 300,000 citizens.   Although the city has existed since Pre-Columbian times, there are no cultural ruins and little aesthetic appeal in the gritty commercial downtown.  example of streets in downtown, Manta Narrow one-way streets climb up and down the steep hills attended by sidewalks in need of repair as crowds of vendors and shoppers move in opposing directions and swirls of activity. The vast majority of the downtown, one or two blocks set back from the waterfront, consists of relatively new and unimaginative structures: two, three and four-story cement and cinderblock square buildings, predominately gray or in need of a new coat of paint, their sides plastered with posters and signs. If the architectural term “Eastern Bloc” existed it downtownmight well apply to this portion of the downtown. In contrast, the Malecon, the main street abutting the Pacific, running along the beach from Playa Murcielago eastward to roughly Playa Tarqui, hosts recent, modern, commercial edifices of glass and steel of several stories.  Here are the larger banks, government buildings, hotels and the like. But, regardless of where you are in the city, tower cranes, arc welders and cutting torches attest to the fact that the city is in a genuine boom phase, both commercial and residential.

city beach near portshrimp and prawns happy fish mongerManta has the largest seaport in Ecuador as well as one of the most stable economies in the country; fishing, tuna processing and canning are the main industries.  We half expected the city to reek of fish but this wasn’t the case. The fish market, a huge open-air structure roofed in tin and located on the beach was worth several morning visits. Tables were piled highfresh caught fish with more varieties of fish than we had ever seen (tuna, dorado, corvina, red snapper, grouper, wahoo, prawns and lobster, etc.) with the fresh catch of the day glistening under stray shafts of sunlight. The flash of machetes and fillet knives slicing through the sea’s bounty and the salty smell of the sea and fish in the air gave us a new appreciation of an ocean harvest. Mid-day, after the crowds depart, the market is washed down; later on in the day it might turn rank, but there are the scavengers (frigates, egrets, herons and buzzards) waiting their turn to help with the final cleanup.A fishermans famliy

At three roundabouts on the Malecon sculptures are erected that reflect Manta’s roots as a village of fishermen and seafarers. building a boat Here, also, we watched the skilled boat builders of Manta craft their handmade ships and, near the Manta Yacht club, we admired the yachts and other ships and boats floating in the bay.  Tourism, both foreign and domestic, is becoming more and more important to Manta’s economy; assorted cruise ships make Manta a port of call. When the ships are in port, local vendors from the city and nearby Montecristi as well as those from the mountain cities of Quito and Cuenca set up their tables and display their handicrafts, textiles and artwork from many of the country’s finest artisans.welcome to Manta

The citizens of Manta were some of the most welcoming and friendly people who we’ve yet encountered.  Although the expat numbers are growing (estimated to be around 350) the ratio of gringos to locals makes this one of the most “authentic” places we’ve been.  Taxi drivers were friendly and we had many conversations in Spanish, and occasionally English, as we were speedily delivered to our destinations.  We made many friends in the active expat group which met several times during the week and our social life varied only with our desire to participate in the many gatherings or seek some quieter pursuits. And, while conversations of religious philosophies might be tolerated, political discussions could be volatile and engaging in such was best avoided.boats bobbing

fresh produceManta’s an easy city in which to live and it’s only going to improve.  It has beautiful beaches and the influx of affluent Ecuadorians looking for vacation homes, foreign speculators seeking a good investment and retiring baby boomers searching for a place where their money goes further are spurring the growth of this city.  The availability of fresh produce and seafood at economical prices is unsurpassed and the city abounds with excellent restaurants. Garbage pickup is daily and there’s good cellular service as well as cable TV and, depending where you reside, excellent Wi-Fi. The electricity costs appear to be much lower than Central America’s and there’s even an airport.

However, our ninety-day visa was close to its expiration date and it was time for us to move on.  And, lest we sound like an ad for International Living, Manta’s not for everyone and it’s probably not for us.  The dry climate that results from the offshore Humboldt Current gives Manta a mild and very pleasant temperature which draws many expats seeking to avoid the torpid humidity of Mexico and Central America.  However, the aridity combined with the constant wind and dust can also cause a lot of respiratory problems for people predisposed to breathing difficulties (what the locals call gripe) and the rainfall, which would clean the air, is erratic and scant. It was usually cloudy during the months that we were there (September through November) but when the sun shone the skies were dazzling. We genuinely felt like we were leaving an old friend when we boarded the plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia.seafarer

By Anita and Richard

 

Going Up Country

Both of us remember as kids piling into the family station wagon for Sunday drives to “see the scenery” and we both had the same thought: “B-O-R-I-N-G!”  Fast forward to present day and it’s readily apparent how much we’ve changed.  A road trip is a cornerstone of travel and the thought of a day spent exploring new towns and countryside can leave us with a sense of giddy anticipation. north of Manta

We headed north of Manta through a series of small “don’t blink your eyes or you might miss them” towns.  Because we’ve found that this area of Ecuador seems to be very aware of its image and protective of its environment, we were surprised when piles of garbage and random trash appeared dumped beside the road for a stretch of a few miles.  We spied a large landfill off to the side, servicing the large military reservation in the area, along the otherwise scenic route and once we left it behind we began to enjoy the views again.  Our favorite trees, the ceibos, appeared and we began wending our way through the low hills.row crops

As we moved inland from the coastline we began noticing small farms of row crops, many with solitary or multiple workers bent over their tasks – stoop labor. Among the offerings we recognized were onions, maiz, pole beans alongside banana and plantains.  Picturesque rice paddies appeared with egrets scattered here and there in the shallow water near workers standing in the mud, hunched over and laboring at the work of tending their crop as in years gone by. Rice paddies

We arrived in Bahía de Caráquez, with an estimated population of 20,000.  As a coastal town situated at the mouth of the Río Chone, it’s a popular vacation destination for residents of Quito and Guayaquil and has begun to attract foreign visitors and retirees as well as investors in the last decade.  Tourism is a significant source of income and, with its high-rise condominiums and hotels located along the waterfront, this new, vertical construction has earned Bahia the nickname of “Little Miami.” Numerous fishing boats, pleasure boats and yachts of various sizes were moored at Puerto Amistad near the bridge which crosses the Rio Chone.view of Bahia from San Vicente

Because it’s a small town there’s not a lot to see but we had a terrific time looking for and taking pictures of the colorful variety of tuk-tuks and pedicabs. There is talk that a new mall with a modern grocery will be coming soon and this will reduce the need for the frequent trips to either Portoviejo or Manta for some basic shopping.

pedi-cabtuk-tuks galoreWe crossed over the Los Caras Bridge, admiring the boats on the bay and drove through the small town of San Vicente which appeared to be largely ignored by tourists and no comparison to its wealthy neighbor. Here, as elsewhere through our journey, we noted the widespread use of bamboo as a construction material for houses, shops and many examples of split rail picket fences.bamboo construction

bamboo fencelongitude why not latitude?) signPassing by occasional roadside signs that counted down our longitude we reached our final destination, a little fishing village named Canoa (0°28’59.9″S 80°27’04.5″W).  Maybe because it was mid-afternoon or low season the few streets seemed almost deserted although it’s a popular tourist destination. Shops and small eateries lined the sandy street adjoining the huge expanse of golden beach that sold beachwear, souvenirs and basic groceries.  Surf lessons for beginners and intermediates were advertised and there were several of the obligatory surfboard shops and hostels as well.mainstreet Canoa

And finally, it was time to feast on some amazingly fresh and cheap seafood at a little thatch-roofed beach restaurant while we admired the view of the Pacific Ocean, bluffs off to either side and scattered fishing boats along the quiet and almost empty beach.Canoa BeachCanoa Beach

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wooden Ships: The Boat Builders of Manta

wooden beautyWooden Ships, the song performed at Woodstock by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and featured on their first album, may well be remembered by many members of our generation. The ballad came to our baby-boomer minds when we first viewed the magnificent wooden yachts and fishing boats in various stages of construction, tear-down and refurbishing.  All the overhauling and building is taking place in dry dock on the sands near Playa Tarqui here in Manta.cleaning and repairing the hull wooden ships

There does not appear to be a great deal written about these craftsmen or the work of the shipbuilders on the beach adjacent to the fish market. Manta, with an estimated population over 300,000, still feels like it’s not much more than an overgrown fishing village although it’s now a major exporter of tuna and other seafood within which a financial sector has flourished. So it’s logical to assume that the profession of building wooden ships has been known and practiced for generations, if not for centuries.a slow process of repair

The current craftsmen still rely on hand tools. Chisels, hammers, adzes, awls, knives, machetes, nail sets and the like are wielded to work the wood to create ribs, hulls, decking, super-structures, etc. Some of the wooden beams and planks are machine milled but not to uniform dimensional lumber. The individual boards are selected one by one, measured and cut separately to match the adjacent plank and the gaps between are sealed by caulking. The beam and ribs are chosen for the grain with a natural bend being required and are slowly shaped so the main supports, to the extent possible, are intact pieces of lumber and not ones “sistered” or jointed.erecting the hull

To seal the spaces between the planks, the fibers of de-husked coconuts are used. These tough strands are roughly woven into a fibrous rope held taut between two men while being worked to form a sinewy caulking that is later covered by water repellant sealers.

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

Photo by Al Eisele of MantaExpatsOnline

Photo by Al Eisele

As a concession to modernity, a limited assortment of power tools are used in the construction including small chain saws. Some of the wooden ships and yachts, which are covered in fiberglass, require powered grinders and buffers for a finished application. These, alongside the Asociacion de Carpinteros de Manta of which the craftsmen are members, show that this native industry has kept pace with the times.fiberglass cover on the hull

almost ready!It’s been decades since the release of the song Wooden Ships; we’ve aged and changed and could even use some refurbishing of our own. And yet we have little reason to believe that much has changed here on the beach in Manta. Certainly the fiberglass coverings, the chainsaws and the associated electrical accoutrements are a more recent addition. But it’s not hard to imagine that the profession of building ships is passed down through the generations from father to son.  And there’s much to be said for the refurbishing of those ships that have been used well and meticulously restored to their former incarnations allowing them to go to sea once more.ready to be refurbished

By Richard and Anita

Special thanks to Al Eisele of mantaexpatsonline.com for permission to use his photos.

 

Déjà Vu at the Tarqui Market

tarqui“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”  The quote, often attributed to Yogi Berra, is the feeling we have as we wander through the vast market area known simply as Tarqui in Manta, Ecuador. It is, in ways, similar to the sprawling mass of shops and stalls in Merida, Mexico whose cacophony and turbulence would drive us back to Parque Central after a couple of hours. Or it could be compared to the Mercado adjacent to the gigantic, bus parking lot, masquerading as a terminal, in Antiqua, Guatemala. Here we could find, among the fruits and vegetables and almost all manner of things available in that country, the area known as la Paca (the Bale) which resembled nothing so much as a vast topsey- turvey Goodwill drop-off station turned on its head. But, Tarqui is unique. Tarqui Market

Man and fishA happy fish vendorA reputable source guestimates that Tarqui is a rectangularly shaped twelve by fifteen blocks. While we’ve not walked the parameter that seems intuitively correct. Tarqui serves as a market for the barrio, the neighborhoods surrounding it, as well as the city folk. The street stalls offer to the passing throngs the bounty of this fecund province of Manabi in addition to the abundance of seafood from the Pacific. For the haggling aficionado, bargain hunters get an animated buying experience with plenty of smiles and shoulder shrugs as well as, in most instances, the cheapest prices in town.

Chicken fetchingly arrangedProduceOn a daily basis, seven days a week, live chickens and ducks, plucked chickens with feet still attached and a harvest from the sea arrive. The heart of the market is, of course, the produce. The vendors, some on the sidewalks but most abutted to the curbs, display their wares in stunningly colorful geometric piles and pyramids of fruits and vegetables.Best ever strawberries

Incredible values are available; a bag of six green peppers goes for fifty cents.  We pay another fifty cents for a bag of fifty to sixty whole, cleaned garlic cloves and are charged 75 cents for a large bag of thirty to forty radishes.  A young man from the nearby town of Jipijapa (Hippy-Hoppa) sells large loaves of banana-nut bread, fresh and amazingly fragrant, baked by his aunt. This still-warm bundle goes in one of our backpacks to be consumed later with the best-ever, ginormous fresh strawberries.Tarqui

Into this teeming mix of buyers, sellers and lookie-loos which fill the streets, taxis and trucks advance with a slow determination. If you’ve ever witnessed a car drive though a herd of sheep or cattle on a country road you get the picture.  It’s literally a game of give and take with the taxi inching its way deliberately through the teeming multitudes and ultimately gaining the upper hand as no one really wants a smashed toe.Tarqui Marquet

And then, as we venture beyond the produce vendors, who congregate near the major thoroughfare at the north end of Tarqui, we encounter the rest of the vast variety of merchants who sell bootlegged CD’s and DVD’s, clothing, plastic items, breads and pastries, car parts, stuffed toys, construction materials, kitchen items and on and on. Behind the vendor’s facades are the stores themselves and occasional alleyways that break the symmetry of the store fronts and allow access to an interior rabbit warren of more small shops, some of which have multiple entrances and exits, and all of which sell –  guess what? – more of what is on the sidewalks outside.

Tarqui MarketOf course, we have the option to shop in the several supermarkets dotted here and there throughout the city, such as GranAki, Mi Comisario and Super Maxi among others. Modeled after their western counterparts they offer ease and convenience in a sanitized package at, almost always, higher prices.  And Tarqui, while similar to street markets in other Latin countries with an echo of having done this before, offers a slightly difference experience; maybe because it’s a different country on a different continent. But here, there’s a spirit of cooperation with buyers and sellers working together to make sure everyone’s a winner.  Buying and selling goes on the world around, but this, friends, is commerce Ecuadorian style in Tarqui.chicken fun

By Richard and Anita

 

 

They Make House Calls Too

It was a dark and stormy night (we’ve always wanted to start a post like that!). The rain was coming down hard, a rare event in Manta, and our power had just gone out.  In fact, looking out our 11th story apartment windows, it appeared that the power had gone out in much of the city.  We decided to call it a night and started the usual preparations to get ready for bed.  The screech from the generator powered intercom startled us around 8:45 PM and the security guard at the entrance to the property engaged us in a fractured dialogue involving our basic Spanglish with the attendant miscommunications.  Finally, we came to understand that the physician we had seen twice to treat Enfermo’s bronchitis was at the entrance.

His daughter, Jema, a second-year medical student, came on the line and explained that she and her father were concerned about Enfermo’s health and were making a house call.  After we shut our gaping mouths, we invited them up to the apartment and then hurriedly changed out of our sleeping attire and back into street clothes.

The back story is immaterial but through circuitous means the doctor had learned that the nebulizer he had loaned us for inhalation treatments was not working properly and they had come to investigate the possible causes of the problem.  Upon deciding that yes, there was a problem with the machine, which of course didn’t work now because the power was out, the doctor and his daughter insisted that we get in their car and go to a pharmacy with power and test it there. So, with Jema driving, we set off into a black night and an entirely different view of Manta.  In addition to the nonfunctioning street lights, many of the traffic lights were also unlit and we slipped and slid on wet, slick roads up and down the steep, winding city streets through a crazed checker board of darkness and illumination.

Dr Cedeno & Jema We found an open pharmacy and after turning on the device the doctor was able to ascertain that the compressor could not produce sufficient force to vaporize the medicine.  This perplexed Dr. Cedeño, as it was a new machine, but he quickly thought up a solution.  Once again, we set off through the rain-speckled, night streets in quest of another nebulizer at his office which was located in the teaching hospital at La Universidad Laica Eloy Alfaro de Manabi where he rounded daily.   Upon our arrival at the university campus the doctor ran into his office only to discover that the equipment that he had envisioned loaning to us was no longer there.  But, (Aha!) he had one other option, an older model in his office across town at the Clinica Americana where we had first met him.

Setting off on our quest once again, we talked about the improbability of this ever happening in the United States. A physician, with his medical-student daughter, making unsolicited house calls out of concern for the health of a patient.  Both of them expressed incredulity at what we described and explained that it was quite common in Ecuador. Part of the physician’s job was to see the patient in the home, as necessary, and here the family would listen to the doctor and also be a part of assisting with patient care.Dr. Cedeno

At last, with a serviceable machine in hand, we arrived safely at our apartment shortly before 11 PM and were deposited at the gates expressing our profuse, totally inadequate thanks for the care, concern and unbelievable efforts just bestowed upon us. Shaking our heads as we mumbled “incredible!” the thought dawned upon us that there had been no discussion of compensation. Only in Ecuador. Only in a land far away from where we once called home.

By Richard and Anita

In Sickness and in Health: Welcome to Ecuador

View from our window

View from our window

We arrived in Manta, Ecuador the first week of September and spent the first couple of days settling into our new apartment on the 11th floor, stocking up the kitchen and looking at the Pacific view from our kitchen window (we’re in the lower rent unit which faces the city rather than the beach).  And then… one of us (let’s use the Spanish word for sick, “Enfermo”, for our patient) was down with fever, chills and a gut-wrenching, racking cough that was accompanied by a growing sense of fatigue, malaise and a slowly increasing shortness-of-breath. And, not just for a short period of time but for days…

City view from the living room

City view from the living room

When you’re traveling, health comes before everything else.  Exploring a new environment or meeting other people just isn’t practical or even doable when you don’t feel well.  Luckily, so far, when one of us has been down the other has been healthy and can run errands, track down a doctor or medication, heat up the chicken soup and generally act as a stand-in for mom, a cheerleader when the whining starts or an advocate when navigating a foreign medical system.

While we have a few health issues we’re generally fairly healthy but we’ve needed to find a doctor and /or dentist several times and in several countries in our two years of travel. When in need of medical care we’ve availed ourselves of our contacts to gain access to proficient heath care. We’ve asked the people from whom we were renting, reached into the expat community for advice and inquired through language schools or NGO’s where we were volunteering. It boils down to relying upon the knowledge of those who live in the community.Clinica Americana

Once it became clear that Enfermo was not going to become well using our emergency supply of medications we reached out to find assistance. The fastest response came from our apartment manager who found a doctor who specialized in respiratory diseases; a pulmonologist by training.  An appointment was set up for that afternoon and a taxi took us across town to the Clinica Americana, which, while only a block from the Malecon (the walkway along the beach), looked rather rundown on the outside and, while clean, old-fashioned looking on the inside.inside clinica Americana

Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by the doctor who introduced us to his wife seated at the reception desk. The doctor spoke some English but called in his daughter, an outgoing second-year medical student, to join us and assist with the translation during the examination. We spent an hour in the doctor’s office during which he examined the patient and we all discussed Enfermo’s medical issues.  We also engaged in conversations about the Doctor’s travels in the US to attend medical conferences and our travels in Central America. Before leaving, the doctor provided us with a prescription for medications we would need to pick up at the farmacia (most are available for the asking without a prescription). He most generously gave us samples of medications which we would need or were currently using.  With a follow-up appointment in hand we willingly paid the nominal $40 consultation fee and departed.the doctor and daughter

The following week found us back for the scheduled appointment with the daughter again in attendance to assist with any translation difficulties. Poor Enfermo’s cough had improved but the feeling of fatigue and shortness of breath had become worse.  A breathing treatment with a nebulizer was administered and the doctor doled out more samples of different antibiotics used in a combination one-two punch against the offender, bronchitis.  He also graciously loaned us a nebulizer to continue a few more breathing treatments at home.  Enfermo left the office a half hour later with new prescriptions, a third appointment date in another week and a more positive outlook about the prospects of a future recovery.  We, again, gladly ponied up the nominal fee.inside Fybeca

our favorite pharmacy!

our favorite pharmacy!

There is an old saying that, “When you have your health you have everything” and at no time in our lives has that saying been more true than when we’ve been traveling.  Being of the baby boomer generation we are much more aware of our health than, say, a traveler in the twenty to thirty year-old range.  Realistically, we know that this is the best our health will ever be, right here and now.  Additionally, we travel as partners sharing the fun and also the not-so-fun times that come with traveling as a lifestyle.  We’re fully cognizant that pursuing our travel dream could come to a standstill if one of us becomes seriously ill.

Recuperating in our new  home

Recuperating in our new home

Enfermo is much improved and, after being holed up in our apartment for an interminable period, we’re now looking forward to exploring Manta and Ecuador and sharing it with our readers.

By Anita and Richard     September 2014

 

 

 

 

The Wood Gatherers: Living on the Edge

Hauling firewoodDuring our travels in western Mexico and Central America we’ve become aware of how costly electricity is in Latin America.  Many times our rent is the base price with the extra cost for the electricity added on by the week or month.  Kitchens usually have cooktop stoves (ovens are rare) fueled by propane which is cheaper and no hot water line plumbed in.  And several times, in budget accommodations, our showers have been cold to tepid also. This, we’ve been told, is the typical arrangement for most local dwellings.hauling firewood

It wasn’t until we were in the mountains of Chiapas State, Mexico, on our way to San Cristobal de Las Casas, that we first became aware of the people who gathered wood. This they gleaned as a fuel source primarily for home consumption uses such as cooking and heating. This basic commodity might be bound for the gatherer’s home or it might be for sale on the streets but it was the fuel choice of the lower echelon of society.Hauling wood

This type of labor takes place at the micro level of the economy, akin to the subsistence farmers of the campo – the country side – who tend small plots of land on the slopes of the hills or by the margins of the roads. It takes place off the grid and the harvesting is done in the thick forest or jungle. More often you see men, each with a machete dangling from their hand, and women or children, walking on the sides of the roads with their loads. Or you see the vendors in the small towns, in the markets, on the streets or hawking wood door-to-door.a log and a machete

Gathering wood is ubiquitous; it went on almost everywhere if one was watching for it. We saw it in the mountains of Chiapas and throughout the Petén rain forests of both Mexico and Guatemala.  We saw it on the beaches in El Salvador, in the western highlands of Guatemala, the coastal regions of Honduras and in the northern hills of Nicaragua.

hauling woodHauling firewoodAnd we saw it in the city of Granada as well as on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Often the men and boys were seen with the large loads suspended from the tumplines around their heads or peddling bicycles with staggering loads strapped on front or rear. Or women trudging along the roads with armloads of wood or even trunk sections balanced on their heads or shoulders; they carried driftwood along the beaches and back towards the small homes away from the tourist areas.tumplin

Wood gathering is demanding and dangerous work as we came to learn.  While housesitting in Antigua, Guatemala for three months we enjoyed using the fireplace on chilly nights and Alejandro, a young man, supplied our wood.  One morning we asked about his “bandaged” hand which was wrapped in a cloth soiled by the work of wood gathering. He was missing the last joint of the ring finger due to a machete accident which had happened several weeks previously and was still in the healing process.  A few months later we met Herman, now a middle-aged, panga boat captain from Utila, Honduras who told us of collecting buttonwood beginning at the age of six with his family. He would rise with his father and brothers well before dawn to row from their home on one small island to another spending the day chopping and gathering wood. Since the red sap of the buttonwood would destroy the few clothes they owned father and sons worked in their briefs or naked. Once the wood was gathered and bundled into uniform sized sticks of one-hundred pieces, they’d paddle to a third island to sell the wood and then paddle home to rest for another day.hauling wood

In the lands where electricity is expensive and poverty is a reality, the necessity for firewood as a fuel will undoubtedly continue. Breathing in the smoke in homes not properly ventilated causes a lot of respiratory illnesses, especially in the young.  However, it is the reality of those living in poverty and on the edge to rely upon this natural commodity and it will fall to those within that class to provide the labor which provides this necessity.bundle

 

By Richard and Anita

Housesitting: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Tineke sTwice a day flocks of brilliant green parrots flew by overhead, sometimes alighting here and there among the verdant trees on the property and sometimes continuing on to the neighboring trees.   They screeched and gabbled and the air reverberated with their riotous cacophony. Like clockwork, at dawn and dusk, the air was also filled with the guttural calls of the howler monkeys.  A few iguanas lived on the property including one dignified male who measured at least two feet long from head to tail.  Butterflies, in a profusion of patterns and hues, alighted briefly on the flowers and we rushed to take pictures before they fluttered away.Magpie jays

A variety of other birds visited us from time to time including the beautiful and regal Magpie Jays who squawked like shrewish crows in a deafening shriek.  And hummingbirds, always there were hummingbirds flitting among the flowers.  Tiny frogs hopped about along with enormous toads, both of which occasionally wandered into the house and had to be scooted back outside gently. variegated squirrel

During the day, one of our favorite visitors, the variegated squirrels, would climb down from the trees, sprint in a funny little run-hop a few feet to another tree and climb back to a safe perch.  And at night there were a multitude of stars spread across the firmament, lightning bugs blinked randomly about and, to the north and east heat lightening arced in brilliant flashes.Tineke s house

We housesat for several weeks on a property six miles outside of Tamarindo, Costa Rica on a parcel of land approximately one hectare (2.5 acres) located at the end of a long dirt road that branched here and there as it delved into the countryside.road to Tineke s

The homestead had a variety of palm, banana, mango, lemon and bamboo trees, as well as several enormous trees which spread broadly providing welcome shade. Flowering plants and bushes were scattered about the property which was fenced all around and secured with a gate half of which hung drunkenly, twisted and totally useless.

And here begins the first story, this one about the marauding cows and horses, who visited several times over the course of the first few weeks, trying their best to graze on the thick grass and delectable, flowering edibles.edible grazing for cows

We would tramp about, with Yippy barking enthusiastically but ineffectively in his unaccustomed role as a cowherding dog, and finally funnel  them back out onto the road.  Not especially fun during the day but a whole different game when this had to be done two times in the dead of night with only the light of the stars and a couple of travel flashlights.  We would peer around the property here and there at looming shapes that would suddenly break into slow trots, urged on by Yippy’s hysterical barking, in any direction but where we wanted them to go! A couple of nocturnal bouts of this entertainment led us to the inelegant but practical idea of closing the working side of the gate and driving the car into the breach left by the inoperative side of the gate.  And once again, our nights were undisturbed and the problem was temporarily solved.Yippy I-O

And the car…we had agreed to rent the car for a nominal sum so that we could run errands, grocery shop and visit the beautiful beaches around Tamarindo.  We were looking forward to the experience as we hadn’t driven a car since we left the States in September of 2012.  It was a nice looking Nissan with 4-wheel drive and … two totally bald rear tires.  In Costa Rica the roads are in notoriously bad shape:  paved roads have no shoulders, abrupt drop-offs and deep potholes.  And the dirt roads?  They are washboarded, rutted, and fissured with fractured stones working their way up to the road surface. Tire life expectancy of a tire is none too long in this part of the world and so, you guessed it … a flat tire.   Jorst, a highly esteemed German expat and tire fixer extraordinaire, arrived within fifteen minutes of our distress call – we were told later that this was not common – but we were duly impressed! He performed the requisite tasks for the nominal fee of $20, an astonishing price for roadside assistance.  Of course, we were a little leery of driving unnecessarily as we still had one American Bald Eagle on the driver’s rear. So, after some back and forth with the homeowner we sprang for two new tires ($175).  Problem solved.

Our housesitting gig included looking after the property and house, maintaining the swimming pool (which started out a bit murky but which we coaxed into a sparkling blue) and the animals.  The four pets were friendly, well-natured and very mellow. 3 outta 4Yippy, the inept cow dog and wanna-be watchdog (also not a successful occupation), was the alpha animal. There were two cats; the younger cat, who we nicknamed Queen Calico, was regal and rather stand-offish except with Yippy with whom she had a rather strange fixation;Strange bedfellows! flirting and rubbing herself sinuously around his legs, curling herself around him seductively when napping and lavishing his face with licks and laps.  Actually, we enjoyed watching this strange affair! The second cat was a tabby we called Fat Cat or Big Mama and she would scold us with long plaintive meows first thing in the morning and throughout the day if her food dish was empty.

And the last player in the ensemble was Dolly, a sweet, golden-colored medium-sized matron with a cataract clouding her left eye and comical ears that flopped over at half-mast. Dorrie - Dolly

It was easy to imagine her in a nursing home, inching her way behind a wheeled walker in a confused daze, peering about with no clue as to where she had been going. It was not her age but her hygiene that created the initial issue; to put it mildly, she was highly odoriferous!  We looked at each other the first night of our arrival with a “How are we going to make it through five weeks with this reeking creature?” expression on our faces.  And, to further add to her unimpressive introduction, the next morning we found out she was incontinent as well. The following week we ended up taking her on the first of four visits to the vet after the hair around her tail and rear end fell out in big clumps almost overnight and the skin became angry-looking and inflamed.  She received a giant dose of antibiotics ($100) to treat a massive ear and skin infection, parasites and the ticks that she had hosted.  And (oh praise Jesus!) an antibacterial bath!   We were instructed to bathe her twice a week with the medicinal shampoo, a ritual that transformed her into a soft and sweet-smelling critter.  As for the incontinence problem?  Since the house was open aired with only grills and gates that covered the doors and windows we moved her bedding (freshly laundered) about ten feet to the covered porch so that her ancient bladder could awaken her at night and she could totter off into the darkness to relieve herself.  Another problem solved.

butterflyAnd so, we finished the last days of our home and pet caretaking gig sitting on the covered patio, watching the birds, listening to and enjoying the fresh scent of the rains with Dolly stretched out dozing on one side of the big work table, Yippy underneath at our feet and the two cats curled on pillows napping on the chairs; our little adopted family.  We’d had a Costa Rican rocky road this housesit and solved even more problems than the ones we wrote about here but we’ll miss this place with all its downsides because, it turns out, there were a lot of upsides, too.Bananas flowering and growing

Note:  The homeowner, a lovely Dutch lady, reimbursed us fully for all expenses incurred during our stay.

By Anita and Richard

 

The ‘Hood: Living In Our Barrio

Vista MombachoIt starts to get light about 5:00 a.m. and the roosters commence their competition to welcome the new day.  Who can crow loudest?  Longest?  Most Inflections?  The birds join in with a songfest and soon we hear the occasional bark of dogs as households begin to stir and take advantage of the cool morning temperatures to get some chores accomplished.  A baby wails, a child laughs, a new day begins.View from rooftop of Vista Mombacho

We can go up to the third-floor rooftop terrace and peer over the waist-high railing into our surrounding neighbor’s irregularly shaped dirt yards filled with an outdoor stove for cooking, various shade trees, the occasional mango, and the ubiquitous banana trees. Drying clothes hang from lines and, in a haze of suspended dust, the women sweep the hard dirt backyards clean of leaves and place the debris into a trash pile with other discards to be burned every few days. The funky odor of burning trash and other garbage wafts into our window occasionally.

We are renting a cheerful, airy, one-bedroom apartment, about 500-square feet, at the Vista Mombacho Apartments.  Our apartmentWe have doormen who monitor the entrance around the clock for security and keep an eye on the neighborhood doings.  A small staff makes certain that maintenance problems are promptly fixed, the apartment cleaned twice weekly, the 5-gallon bottles of drinking water replaced as needed and our questions answered as they arise. The laundry facilities are clean and the Wi-Fi, while not blazingly fast, is reliable.  And, oh yes, there’s a lovely pool to float around in during the heat of the day and a roof-top patio for get-togethers or star-gazing while relaxing in a hammock.the neighborhood of Vista Mombacho

As for the neighborhood, zoning is a first world concept and “mixed” would most aptly describe the area. The predominant style is colonial with the attached dwellings fronting the walkways and/or road and finished in a stucco facade. Some homes are well-maintained with freshly varnished doors and a gleaming coat of paint. Neighborhood near Vista Mombacho Some are a little shabby and some are in uncared for, dilapidated disrepair interspersed with the occasional empty, trash-strewn lot. Mixed in with the houses are pulperias: small, family run stores in the front of the home specializing in convenience items and groceries, homemade foods and drinks, bicycle or small appliance repair shops, etc.  Many mornings we’ll glimpse the neighborhood women here and there busily scrubbing down the walkway in front of their homes or businesses.  At various times of the day, groups of men (varying in age but all unemployed) will congregate to visit or pass around a bottle.  Occasionally, as you walk a few blocks in any direction, will be some prone, passed-out man sleeping off another day of no work, no hope.

Home security - Stretching concertina wire

Home security – Stretching concertina wire

La Union

La Union

The two grocery stores we shop at, La Union and La Colonia, are about four blocks from our apartment.  Every couple of days we grab our canvas bags and set off. The stores are surprisingly westernized with shopping carts, scanner check-outs, and US and Latin American brand names. The familiarity and ease of shopping is reflected in the increased pricing.  We attempt to economize by buying some of our fresh fruits and vegetables in the small markets around the city or the mercado but the habit of convenient one-stop shopping dies hard.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, just a couple blocks down from the grocery store is the office of our physician, Dr. Francisco Martinez Blanco,  who speaks fluent English and enjoys a popular reputation in the expat community.   In the other direction is the Laboratorio de Diagnostico Clinico Jesus Christo known to expats as “The Baby Jesus Clinic” where you can get your lab work done.  Two blocks further on is a husband and wife dentist team, both fluent in English and trained in Argentina, who run a spotless, modern and well-organized office and personally performed  our bi-annual cleaning and dental checkups at a fraction of the cost of work in the US.

The Baby Jesus Lab

The Baby Jesus Lab

It’s not hard to find fault in any city if you’re looking but Granada, a beautiful little city, is easy to love and easy to feel at home in. There’s plenty to do and see in the area for those so inclined or there are many places to relax and while away an afternoon.  Parting company with the city and continuing our travels at the end of April will be difficult.

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

Where No Sewer Has Gone Before…

We all know the dull headache that comes when the city announces impending plans for a sewer repair or a road extension project. Checking it out In advance, we anticipate the congestion caused by the heavy equipment which will crowd the cars to the margins of the streets. The sight of earthmovers plying their trade on our public thoroughfares does not draw a second glance. But that is there, in the States – back home, where energy is abundant and affordable, where mechanical power has for scores of years replaced human power.

Detour For the last two-plus months, during our daily commute, we have watched a major sewer expansion project as the City of Granada extends the sewer lines into the previously ignored and poorer barrios south of the city.Digging  Electrical power has recently been provided to the vast majority of the area along with potable water. The sewer, as the most complex of the projects, is the latest improvement. So, if you need to construct a new sewer line and you do not have access to cheap, reliable electricity or heavy equipment, you use the resources that are available to you. You use the labor force to dig the trenches, lay the pipe, install the man-hole connections and complete all the ancillary work that needs to be done.

DiggingHand mixing cementNow, mechanized power is not totally absent. There are trucks delivering pipe and bedding gravel. There are water trucks providing construction water to the project. There are a few whacker-packers for compaction; there are even a couple of Bob-cat style loaders, presumably to assist with some lifting aspect of the work. But, primarily, the work is conducted with shovels and an enormous effort of physical stamina, brute strength and human power.

Does a project of this scope cause a bit of havoc in the neighborhood? Well, yes. There is no difference there. The major streets are closed or restricted with traffic forced onto the laterals. Passersby The number of “close calls” between vehicles and bicycles, scooters, pedestrians and the numerous horse-drawn carts, increases exponentially. Street traffic gets diverted to the unpaved side streets  creating hovering dust clouds for the residents. Traffic control, a discipline that has not yet reached its maturity in Granada, is inadequate – signage and traffic flow is a matter of secondary or tertiary importance.

Funding by Japan & GermanySewer constructionBut the work does get done. From our seats in the taxi we click our camera shots and watch as the project unfolds. The route to our school in the Pantanal neighborhood seems to change regularly as portions of the road are released for traffic. There is no major fan-fare about the progress of the work; it simply proceeds, day after day. The only sign, while not announcing Your Tax Dollars at Work, does explain that this new work was made possible with assistance from Germany and Japan.

So, say what you will about the disparity of construction methods between the US and Granada, Nicaragua.  There is still a basic and unmistakable commonality – those damn construction guys are forever leaning on their shovels!Leaning on the shovel

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

Teaching English And Volunteering In Pantanal

It’s hot in Granada during the dry season and, according to the weather forecasters, it’s going to get even hotter next month. This February the temperature has averaged in the mid-to-upper eighties.  In the neighborhood where we volunteer for Education Plus Nicaragua, Pantanal, the temperature seems to be amplified by several degrees.  The corrugated tin roof that covers the classroom at the school seems to intensify the heat. When the breeze makes an unexpected appearance it picks up the fine grit from the bare dirt yards and unpaved roads and deposits a fresh layer that sifts across and down over everything.   

PantanalFew tourists visit Pantanal and taxi drivers are reluctant to drive us to the neighborhood because of the distance from city center, the unpaved roads in much of the barrio and the detours caused by sewer extension construction. Some days, if we don’t have our usual taxi driver, Nestor, we’ll  have to ask over and over “Barrio Pantanal, por favor?” before we receive an affirmative response; most simply give a brusque shake of the head as they continue on their way.

Edu-Plus, Yanni's houseWe arrive each morning about 11:30 at the home owned by Yanni and her family where the school is currently located.  We set up the low tables and chairs which serve double duty as dining tables for those children receiving lunch or dinner and desks for the seventy or so students in one of the four classes.  lunch timeServing lunch to the youngest of the students is one of our favorite times.  The little ones, of pre-school and kindergarten age, line up with their bowls, spoons and glasses that they bring from home and wait patiently.  For some, this might be their only meal for the day.  Only a few weeks ago, when they first enrolled in the school at the beginning of January, it was a madhouse with children shouting, pushing and shoving to be first in line. Now they wait. They know there will be food for all.

HandwashingFollowing hand washing, we take turns with the other volunteers alternating between pouring the reconstituted milk into their glasses and dishing up the day’s offerings which might includeWaiting for lunch rice, beans, soy patties, cabbage slaw salad or fried plantains.  The children begin the meal time with a prayer in Spanish, hands steepled together, occasionally peeking out at one another from under their brows.   Towards the end of the meal the kids will share the food they don’t want with others and there’s always a stray dog or two from the street winding their way under the tables hopefully waiting for the scraps.

lunch time at the schoolWhen lunch is over we team up with the newly hired Nicaraguan college student, Johanna, to teach English to three classes daily, every Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 3:00.  We divide the children into small groups to facilitate both learning and control.  The materials are a mishmash of donated educational items and home-made flash cards and posters. There is a portable white board at the front of the classroom area for the teacher and students to use. Each weekend we plan out ways to introduce new vocabulary, activities and songs to make the learning fun for all of us.

group workAt the end of the afternoon, we catch a taxi home, sometimes buoyed and smiling by a day that went as we had planned with games and learning proceeding as envisioned.  Other days we leave a little disheartened or frustrated by one or another of the classes that was disruptive or uncooperative.  We’re enervated by the cacophony that surrounds the little open school room in Pantanal; the children, the barking dogs and the booming loud music and Spanish talk radio from the house next door.  We return to our area of town where the temperature seems to be not so intense, the streets are paved and we can walk in our bare feet across the cool, clean tile floors of our apartment.

But when the taxi arrives the next morning at Yanni’s house, there will be a few early arrivals waiting with smiles and eager bright-eyed faces, arms outstretched for a hug and ready to help us haul out the tables and chairs for another day.

Jumping rope - Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

Jumping rope – Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

The Cafe Of Smiles

Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries.  Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?

There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.

The cafe of smiles and Smiles CoffeeWhich brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles.  With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute.  Big things behind little doors-Cafe SonrisaThe home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain.  Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom.A hammock to lounge by the garden  After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas.  The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.

Weaving hammocks at Cafe Sonrisa   The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of:  1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.

Weaving hammocksThe cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities.  The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur.  Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.

Just beginning the weavingSoon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue.  Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment

weaving a hammock chairThe goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee.  In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.Hammock factory next to cafe Sonrisa

By Anita and Richard, February, 2014

 

Slow Traveling: Putting Down Shallow Roots

Boy with a stick & tire We like to travel slowly.  When we came back from Big Corn Island to Granada at Christmas we almost felt like we were coming home. Neighborhood Kids  True, this was our third trip back in as many months and there was that warm, fuzzy feeling of the familiar.  True, it was great to return to a city we knew and nod again at familiar people on the streets.  True, it was so much easier to know already which direction to go to find the shops and visit favorite restaurants than to set off on the initial exploration of a new city.  And true, it was wonderful to see and talk to friends we had met previously.

Our initial plan in December was to spend Christmas in Granada and, at the beginning of the New Year, make our way through Costa Rica with a visit to the Caribbean side and head to Panama.A smile and a wave  But… we couldn’t get excited, even as we stared at the map at places that had previously stirred our imagination.  We felt kind of fizzless.  When we looked at bed-and-breakfast places, hostels and hotels all we could see were the hefty dollar signs attached and we lacked the enthusiasm to dig a little further for places to stay that were more reasonable.  Our act of procrastination and deciding to not decide on the next step presented a third option:  Why not stay a couple of months in Granada?

Pigs in a poke (kind of)And so, we reached out to the expat community.  During our previous visits we’d heard that there was a monthly meet and greet of expats who were establishing and reinforcing business contacts but then we learned there was also an informal gathering every Friday in front of the Grill House on Calle Calzado.  A few people, foreigners who now lived in Granada, both permanently and for shorter stays, and also people passing through would get together around 5:00.

Catching a bite to eatWe almost missed our first meeting. A rainstorm had us waiting in the inner courtyard with no group of expats in sight  When we gave up and came outside, though, there were a couple of tables pushed together and a few people sitting at them conversing.  We boldly walked up to the table (we never would do this in the US) and asked, “Is this the expat get-together?”.  In short order we had new acquaintances, an appointment to see an apartment, a list of places to inquire about volunteer opportunities and an invitation to lunch the next day.

A working familyThat is one of the beauties of slow travel. Since there is seldom a fixed itinerary there is no reason not to extemporize on the travel agenda. We have great latitude in deciding to extend a stay in places that please us, settle a bit more into a community and explore previously undiscovered places.  The only requirement of slow travel is that the roots must, of necessity, be shallow. For at some point we will pack up and be moving on again.

La fiesta - Granada, NIC 2013

La fiesta – Granada, NIC 2013

By Anita and Richard, January, 2014

 

A Year’s Accounting or…We Spent What?

money-stream roadA pox upon budgets We’ve never budgeted in our lives. The whole notion of a budget was antithetical to our concept of being. Yet, when we first started planning our great adventure one of our foremost questions was “How Much”?  We diligently researched destinations across the globe and avidly read travel blogs and how-to books on retirement in various countries that broke down costs.  Some articles boasted that expat couples were living in Ecuador and Nicaragua for as little as $800 per month Chiapas Mexicowhile others said $2500 a month would entitle one to a lifestyle one could only dream of back in the States. When we hit the road in September of 2012 we started tracking our daily expenses and charted it in a monthly spreadsheet.  This was basically to give us a baseline and to anticipate future costs. We also had to learn and adopt a lifestyle that was both commensurate with our desires and our bank book. Lodging is the largest single cost and our criteria have remained consistent: safe, clean, affordable. When possible we look for weekly or monthly rental bargains. Caveats Medical costs are excluded; these are too idiosyncratic. All costs associated with life back in the states are excluded such as costs associated with our house that we are currently leasing (and plan to sell this year), charitable and Christmas gifts, etc.

Mean Monthly Costs by Category for Calendar Year 2013 in Dollars per Month

ITEM                                 MEAN            MAX             MIN

Clothing                  44          115            5

Food                      368          632          77

Classes                   164          400           0

Meals                     407          587        202

Misc.                      190          383          80

Rent                       875        1697          22

Tours                      136          511            0

Transp.                    240           503          13

Total                     2367           N/A         N/A

What’s Included:

Clothing: Clothing covers everything from rain ponchos, sunglasses and second-hand shirts to Teva sandals shipped in from the states.

Fruit and VeggiesFood: Includes consumable items as well as household products (shampoo, soap, paper goods, garbage bags, etc.). Many times we buy gringo foods at gringo prices and, obviously, this would be a perfect place to economize!

Lessons: Spanish lessons and, most recently, the services of a professional trainer. These are intermittent costs. We don’t incur them every month.

Traditional Mayan FishMeals Out: Any meals eaten outside the home including drinks and snacks. The figure is a real eye-opener!

Miscellaneous:  A sampling of expenditures reveals moneys that were spent for laundry, haircuts, massages, entertainment, a travel alarm clock, housekeeper gratuities, baby, graduation and quinceanera gifts, volunteer supplies, replacement computer mouse (mice?), fees to use public bathrooms and handouts to street beggars.

Online: This includes fees paid online for e-books, I-tunes, Netflix, Hot Spot (our virtual private network), Dropbox, Skype membership, etc.

Vista MombachoRent:  This year we paid for lodging in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our most common lodging is at B&B’s but this also covers homestays and housesitting and includes any utility costs when paid.

Tours/Excursions: Entrance fees for museums, archeological sites, historic sites such as cathedrals, National parks, guided tours and the like.  Also included are entrance or exit fees at border crossings between countries.

Tuk-Tuks Santa Elena, GTMTransportation: If it moves and we’re on board it’s included. That means tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, shuttle, panga, launcha, ferry and airplane fees. We’re not absolutely convinced that this budgetary spreadsheet is necessary or advisable. But we’re finding it interesting to see how we spend our money and tracking our expenses has become a habit. So, we reckon we’ll keep at it for another year and see what changes in our spending behavior…

Through the roof!

Through the roof!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014          

Barefootin’ And Driftin’…Slow Days On Big Corn Island

Main Street - Brig BayEach day unfolds slowly here on the island.  Long before the first glimmers of light we hear the big rooster who lives behind our little abode greeting the day.   He seems to take great pleasure in moving outside around our bungalow and trumpeting his wake-up call from underneath each window until he’s satisfied that he’s been heard.   The unseen birds then begin their chorus of songs taking turns to break out into lyrical solos before blending back into the cacophony.  And always, in the background, the sound of the surf – some days a gentle swoosh and others a crashing roar.

Our panga with AlejandroOne day we climbed into a panga with two Creole fishermen and Steve and Toni, a couple of new friends, and slowly trolled along the rocky cliff faces for barracuda before setting off across the water in search of kingfish and yellowtail snapper.  The panga, a local vessel,  lacked  Coast Guard approved life vests aboard but there was a bucket filled with coconuts to quench our thirst. line-fishing & drinking coconut milkThe trick was to hack off the outside skin with a sharp machete, poke a quarter-sized hole into the point and then savor the contents.  In between  practicing line- fishing and sharing the two battered poles between the four of us,  we drifted slowly through the morning, hypnotized by the movement of the waves in various shades of blue and not bothered appreciably by our failure to catch anything but a couple of pan-size perch.north end of Big Corn Island

Bottle mosaicsAnother day, we took the ferry across the water to Little Corn Island and spent a few hours strolling around the picturesque and quaint small island, admiring a little store whose walls were built from glass bottles and mortared together into a colorful mosaic and eating excellent kingfish tacos for lunch at a lodge overlooking a coral reef before returning to our own island.

Every Sunday there’s a baseball game in the corrugated roofed stadium whose fences are papered with colorful advertisements.  For an admission price of 20 cordobas (less than $1) you can while away the early afternoon hours rooting for your favorite team, applauding standout plays and listening to the booing and cursing in the colorful Caribe dialect as abuse is heaped upon an unfortunate player.  Reggae and classic country western music blasts from the overhead speakers and occasionally, a member of the audience will stand and shimmy a few dance moves to celebrate an especially good play.  A woman sells a little spicy and delicious meat-filled, half-moon shaped pie called Caribe patties and sings out “pat-TEE, pat-TEE, pat-TEE” as she walks the aisles.  After she makes her sale to us she proudly confides that the young man at bat, number  11, is her grandson but “He ain’t playin’ so good today”. Indeed, he went 0 for 3 for the afternoon.

swimming at the municipal wharfgirl with a beautiful smileAnd always, there’s swimming and snorkeling in the sea, walking the almost deserted road around and about the island, watching the children laughing and at play, poking among the various fruits and vegetables on sale for the tastiest, exchanging greetings and pleasantries with the locals, napping occasionally and reading book after book.  It reminds me of the slow and lazy, endless summer days of childhood; a feeling and memory to be savored.Three kids

By Anita and Richard, December, 2013

 

Two Cats, Two Chickens: Living The Life In Costa Rica

The best weather in the world

Everyday, there's a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

Everyday, there’s a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

“Vivir la vida” means living the life and that’s what we figured we were doing as we headed for Atenas, Costa Rica and a new housesitting gig we had arranged a few months beforeThe picturesque town of Atenas, reputedly named by a National Geographic writer as having the “best climate in the world”, is surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. It’s a popular place for North American retirees who are drawn to the area by the climate, the area’s beauty and its proximity to the Pacific coast and  San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Also high on the list of things to like about Atenas is the genuine friendliness of the people.  And, although it’s a small town, (approximately 27,000) it has numerous westernized amenities.

Atenas street scene

Home maintenanceWe met the homeowners, Mario and Christina.  Their abode, behind a traditional privacy wall, was large and comfortable and located in a “Tica” (local) neighborhood. Inside it had many original paintings and mosaics that Christina, an artist, had created. And, oh joy! hot water in both the kitchen and bathroom.  The tap water was potable so, not only could we wash our fruits and vegetables in it, we could drink it as well.  We spent a couple of days with Mario and Christina learning the idiosyncrasies of their home and the basic layout of Atenas.  Our responsibilities included caring for two cats (Miles and Chunche) and two chickens (Blue and Dixie).  Additionally, there was swimming pool maintenance and composting of organic food and yard wastes, cleaning the patio and sidewalk, picking up the mail from the post office, vehicle checks and emailing our hosts every few days to discuss any problems or assure them that we were caring for all they loved diligently.Miles & Chunche

And then…one of the chickens died.  Our worse fear as house and pet sitters is of a pet death or some home catastrophe that we might have prevented.  Granted, Blue was limping around the yard in the days before our hosts left but… We alerted Mario and Christina a couple of days after they left that Blue was ailing and did not want to leave the chicken coop and that we had placed her feed near her.  A couple of days went by with her continuing to eat but, one morning she was dead. How to tell someone their pet had died?  Tough but we just had to suck up being the bearers of bad news and figure out where to bury her…

La FeriaOther than poor Blue…the rest of our house and pet sitting job went smoothly with us enjoying the run of a well-equipped home, cable television, fast internet and, such luxury, a pool.  Each Friday we’d walk to the local feria (farmers’ market) and join a throng of smiling shoppers looking at the artful arrangements of fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads and baked goods and a small selection of handmade crafts. Eventually we’d make our purchases and take our tasty acquisitions back to our abode to enjoy over the next few days. It seems that vivir la vida is really what it could be all about…

La feria

By Richard and Anita, November, 2103

 

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