Tag Archives: expats in Central America

Back in the U-S-S-A

The sun was well up as the plane descended into the Miami International Airport.  It was just shy of twenty-three months since we’d loaded up two cars, deposited the keys with the property management company who would handle leasing our last substantial possession, our house on Padre Island, and headed north to drop off the last of the belongings with our son in Denver, CO. From there we’d flown to Mexico for several months of traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula followed by wanderings that encompassed every country in Central America.  And now, we were coming back “home”; wondering if we’d experience the reverse culture shock that we’d heard about from other long-term travelers.Flag photo from Padre Island

In Latin America we’d found border crossings to be either ridiculously easy affairs or protracted and potentially problematic even though we’d experienced nothing worse than inconvenient delays, minor price gouging and nasty public toilets. But the effortless return to the States was totally unexpected. We were directed to the Global Entry kiosks where we scanned our passports, filled in a bit of data, mugged for the camera, grabbed our print-outs and went to the friendly customs agents who welcomed us back home. Claiming our bags was not a problem and with no more than a nod and a smile we wandered off to find our next terminal to re-check our baggage en route to our first stop, Newark. So easy. It was all coming back to us. This is the States; things worked here, just like they were supposed to.

Since we’d been gone so long visiting family and friends was a priority and so we spent the month of August journeying from New Jersey to Virginia and then Washington, Colorado and, finally, Texas.  However, besides catching up with F&F we came to S-H-O-P. We were consumers with a mission to replace everything that was battered, tattered and worn from months on the road.  We needed new laptops; the original ones we had purchased were too large, too heavy and needed some major fixin’ expertise. New Kindle Fires had been ordered and awaited us at a relative’s home as well as new I-pods and all the other things that may not be essential but certainly make life easier as well as more enjoyable. We also replaced our luggage in a successful attempt to shed pounds by swapping out the 24-inch hard-sided, spinner-wheels suitcases. They were durable but not really practical for use on cobblestone streets or rutted roadways. And clothing; what we hadn’t abandoned in our last month in Panama was faded and limp, much of it obtained from the Nicaraguan stores called “Ropa Americanas” that sold slightly used clothing unwanted in the US.  And so we shopped from the east coast to the west coast to the Gulf coast for the light-weight, quick-dry, no-fuss clothing necessary for the tropical climes.  Lastly, we snagged new light-weight backpacks at REI in Denver as well as countless other little things on the list like vitamins, sunglasses, etc.

Consumerism is a crass word; it’s so negative and judgmental. It’s also quite apt. We shopped unabashedly. We shopped with glee and gusto. We shopped until we nearly imploded from sensory overload. It’s not possible for us to describe the experience. But a friend named Peter, a transplanted Floridian living in Costa Rica, referred to the US as the “land of too much”  and in this we can wholeheartedly concur.

And the take-aways? The reverse culture shock we’d been told of by fellow travelers? There were a few moments that were a bit disorienting, especially in some of the mega-grocery stores but the culture shock was much less than we’d expected.  However, some observations were duly impressed upon us.

Long distance travel in the States requires air transportation; flying is a necessary evil. There are really no practical or economical options. Of course, there’s Amtrak or Greyhound but chances are the destinations are not on the route or out-of-the-way. And, if you find a workable route it can take, literally, days to reach your destination and may actually be more expensive. For long distance traveling flying the friendly skies is really the only practical option. And for short distances it’s a private vehicle. Buses are inconvenient, cabs are prohibitively expensive and most cities are too spread out to be pedestrian friendly. Quite a contrast to our life on the road using feet, buses, shuttles, tuk-tuks, inexpensive taxis, pangas and water taxis; all forms of economical travel that don’t require an airport or SUV.

We put our home on North Padre Island on the market with little sentimentality and concern only for the market realities of supply/demand and what we may be able to pocket from the transaction.  It was a wonderful place while we were there and we’d intended it as our retirement home. But, it became our last possession that kept us rooted to a place that no longer fitted our needs. We suspect that we’re abnormal in this regard but there are a whole lot of places yet to be seen.

So no; there was no culture shock. But there was no culture fixation either. The US is unique both in history and in current time. It is pre-eminent for many reasons. And we love it dearly. It has given us the freedom to pursue this passion of ours for travel and new experiences. We are not spurning the US; we are bidding a temporary adieu. We shall return to visit and okay, “consume” quite often.

By Richard and Anita

 

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

In The Zone: The Panama Canal

Panama CanalWe left Costa Rica on the Tica Express Bus at midnight for what turned out to be a sixteen hour bus trip from hell (think freezing cold air conditioning and the passenger in front of us lying almost in our laps).  However, we were on our way to Panama City and a visit that we’d dreamed of for many years:  the Panama Canal.  Several years ago we’d watched an impressive documentary about the building of the Panama Canal and, since then, seeing the Canal had been one of our big bucket list items.Locks closed

A waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans had been a dream since the explorer and conquistador, Vasco Balboa, first claimed the western sea for the Spanish crown in the 16th century.  However, by the turn of the 20th century it appeared to be more of a fools’ delusion as the French had lost a veritable fortune and an estimated 20,000 lives between the years 1881 to 1884 attempting this folly.  But less than twenty years after the French catastrophe, science and technology had progressed sufficiently in divergent fields to allow this ambitious aspiration to become a fully functioning engineering reality.

Scientists, among them Dr. Walter Reed, established that malaria was transmitted by a mosquito and, through an aggressive campaign on many fronts, effectively halted the pestilential killer during the construction.  New earth moving machines such as drag-line shovels and moveable dredges made mass excavation possible on a scale previously unimaginable.  And concrete, at the time a novelty for heavy civil construction, was used as the predominant building material. All of this newly acquired knowledge, scientific components and machines allowed the work to begin in earnest.closed

But perhaps the most phenomenal aspect of the canal was the elegantly simple notion to use gravity to raise the ships from sea level through a series of locks over the continental divide and then return them to sea level on the other side of the isthmus. Sir Isaac Newton would surely have been proud.lock gates opening

For the better part of two days our venues were the Visitors’ Centers, first at the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side and subsequently the Gatún Locks on the Caribbean side, gaping at the massive ships as they transited the canal through the system of locks and lakes that comprise this international waterway. Call us hicks but this was one show for which we had both been eagerly awaiting; it was bigger than the big top at the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus we’d attended as kids.entering the canal

We were still struggling with the concept of gravity as the main character in the live drama before us when we realized that a very large container ship, the MSC ELA, was actually sinking into the center lock at the Miraflores. It wasn’t really sinking; the water was being equalized with the adjoining chamber so that when the gates opened the ship would glide towards the final lock gates. This commercial behemoth was being held firmly in the center of the canal by eight mechanical mules (locomotives) with their sixteen hawsers. ship going through

What was even more astounding was that there were approximately eighteen inches of clearance between the sides of the ship and each canal wall.   These last gates would open, when all was stabilized, and the MSC ELA would be free to resume her voyage to the Pacific side of the American continent.almost through

That this entire operation was one hundred years old in 2014 was a staggering thought. The lock gates, forged in Pennsylvania a century before, were performing magnificently. The major modification occurred in 1998 and changed the forty horsepower motors which drove the bull gears, the massive ratio-reduction system of cogged wheels, to a pneumatic system.  But ultimately the key to the longevity was rigorous maintenance and that was evidenced all around us as we watched the ships transit north and south though the canal.done

So much of what we saw was attributable to the efforts of individuals on a regular and recurring basis. This was true from the surveyors who shot the original grade to the laborers who manned the shovels and dredges; from the men who operated the Canal Zone as an American enterprise until the transfer on December 31, 1999, to the country of Panama and the Panamanians who now provide this vital service to the world.Through the canal

By Richard and Anita

 

The Road To Cahuita

Riding the Tika Bus again we could tell within a few miles that we had left Nicaragua and were now in Costa Rica.  The shanties alongside the Pan American Highway looked a little less shabby and the rusted corrugated structures used as shelters were not in evidence.  The cars looked a little newer and, it took a while to notice what was lacking, there were no horses or cattle pulling carts or families walking beside the road.  Overall, within just a few miles of the border, Costa Rica felt more prosperous.Ferns & Forest

The feeling of Costa Rica having more continued into the next day as we set off early in the morning from the capital city of San Jose to the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.  We wound our way on a two-lane road through hills and low mountains driving through rain forests; the damp mists and clouds clung to the vehicle and traffic turned on their lights and slowed to a crawl to navigate through dense, cool fog.  Alongside the road were giant ferns, plants with huge leaves at least eighteen inches across and, in some places, the trees from either side of the road touched overhead and formed a living tunnel.  Occasionally we could see the valleys far below filled with hazy clouds and there were brilliant greens in every imaginable shade wherever one looked. For a while we followed a truck carrying mangoes and tomatoes and then other trucks filled with pineapples and bananas.  We glimpsed numerous rivers and streams as we passed, some with round, water-smoothed rocks scattered about the riverbeds and the trees lining the banks were flowering with exotic blossoms of purple, reds, yellows and oranges.  Everywhere the earth was populated by some thriving, living plant and the impression of abundance and fertility seemed to envelope us.Headed towards Jadin Glorioso

We arrived at our destination, Cahuita, about noon and were met by our American hosts, Edward and Julie, who led us down a dirt road about two hundred yards to the little casita on their gated property.  We were compelled to walk slowly as we were valiantly dragging our hard-shell, 24-inch suitcases with state-of-the-art spinner wheels through ruts and over pebbles along-side us; yet, again, another reminder of how inappropriate our luggage is for the out-of-the-way places in which we keep finding ourselves!El Jardin GoriosoSo, anyway, on to another piece of heaven, El Jardin Glorioso – the glorious garden. The grounds are a natural, park-like setting populated by royal palms reaching forty feet towards the sky, fan palms, triangle palms, lipstick palms and a profusion of numerous extraordinary and colorful plants, flowers and trees. This includes our new favorite, the ylang-ylang tree, which grows the most amazing flower with an intoxicating fragrance (rumored to be one of the ingredients for Chanel No. 5).The coral pool

Coral poolWe took advantage of the property’s crown jewel, a natural coral pool that one climbed down into carefully, avoiding the sharp walls to swim in tranquil privacy; watching the waves form and crash through the pool’s opening, the sea water flowing into the enclosure and ebbing out.

And so we found ourselves spending over a week Cahuita, waking to a chorus of birds early each morning (and not a rooster crow to be heard!) and finishing our day sitting out on our porch enjoying the night sounds or at the nearby coral beach watching both the night sky and the waves.El Jardin Glorioso

Next post – There’s much, much more to the Cahuita area including the Cahuita National Park and The Jaguar Sanctuary.

El Jardin Glorioso

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

The Easter Pilgrims Of Popoyuapa

Pilgrims from PopyuapaSo much of travel is about serendipity; the unanticipated, the unknown and the totally unexpected.  And so, imagine our smiling astonishment as we rounded a curve on the Pan American Highway south of Granada, Nicaragua, last week and found motorized traffic halted and waiting for a long line of at least one hundred and fifty carts being pulled by oxen and horses. Caravan  Families with young children and the elderly passed by, either walking alongside the carts or riding inside.  Many of the carts were in the process of pulling off the road to rest and water their animals.  And, of course not able to resist an opportunity for a closer look, we hopped out of car and started walking down the road to find out what we could.Family passing by

The two-wheeled carts were built with a wooden base, many with aged and gray boards but others were gaily painted.  They had arched frameworks that were mostly covered in sugarcane stalks and leaves to shade the occupants within from the hot sun shining overhead.  Hanging from the roofs and along the carts’ sides were buckets filled with food, straw baskets, coolers, hammocks and cheap, plastic chairs and bunches of bananas or plantains. Chicken on the roof!

Perched upon the top of several of the carts we spied hens and roosters clinging to roof coverings for (perhaps?) their last ride.  Many carts displayed yellow flags which signify the Catholic Church and the blue and white national flag of Nicaragua.  Some were draped with a large purple cloth representing the upcoming Holy Week and stamped across with the name of the city from which they ventured.Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

Nicaragua is a Catholic country and the culture is rich in religious beliefs and folkloric traditions that may vary from region to region; many are prominently on display during Lent and Semana Santa or Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday.  We found out later that the caravan that we had seen formed the return trip of devout pilgrims visiting Popoyuapa, a small village of 4,000 near San Jorge, Rivas and Lake Nicaragua where a four-day festival occurs each year before Santa Semana.  The Sanctuary of Popoyuapa is the home for the Shrine of Jesus the Redeemer, a life-size Christ figure wearing a traditional crown of thorns.  The image is also known as Jesus the Rescued, possibly named so after the floating statue was retrieved from Lake Nicaragua or, according to another story, after being pieced back together following an earthquake in 1844.Pilgrims from Popoyuapa

In addition to those making the symbolic pilgrimage by oxcart, thousands more of the faithful visit the shrine during Semana Santa to show their devotion and express their thankfulness for what they’ve received, for favors divinely granted or to ask for miraculous intervention in their needs.

colorful cartsThe pilgrimage by oxcart to Popoyuapa  is a tradition passed down through the generations and has occurred for at least a century with the faithful traveling from as far away as Masaya and Granada in a journey that may take as long as four days and cover up to 150 miles round trip.  Except for a chance encounter on the Pan-American Highway we might never have seen this astounding caravan of oxcarts plodding down the road nor learned of this religious pilgrimage of the deeply faithful. Pilgrims to Popoyuapa

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

 

 

Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

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

« Older Entries