Tag Archives: expats in Latin America

Out of Touch: Blissfully Unaware of the Christmas Ballyhoo

Nativity scene on Big CornThis is our second Christmas on the road and, as we return to Granada for the third time in as many months from our sojourn in the Corn Islands, we realize how out of touch with the holiday season we are. This is the week before Christmas and we’ve been happily removed from the Christmas hoopla. 

Minimalist decorThe weather’s hot, there are no television advertisements (indeed, no TV where we’ve been staying), no canned and cheesy Christmas carols blaring from store speakers urging us to Buy! Buy! Buy!  Ads that assail (and, I have to admit) entice us everywhere we turn.  Aside from the flood of email ads hawking holiday wares and specials which we delete each day we can choose to ignore the frantic commercial frenzy and preparations for the big day almost totally.

A Miskita church

A Miskita church

Which, and we apologize beforehand to all you Christmas season lovers, is exactly what we want.  No pushing and shoving crowds, no traffic snarls, no obligatory Christmas parties where overly exuberant drinking leads to unintended consequences.

A tipsy SantaInstead, we’ll spend a quiet Christmas with a friend we met in Merida, Mexico last year and new friends we’ve met in Granada.    We’ll call family to catch up on the news and activities of the day and, except for online gift cards, congratulate ourselves on our wise spending while trying hard not to miss those we love most dearly.

Seasons Greetings to all of you who read our blog.  If you are a Christmas lover enjoy the holiday.  If you’re not, get through it!  And to all of you, our wishes for a safe and sane New Year.A different Christmas tree

By Anita and Richard, December 2013

 

Off The Gringo Trail: Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Municipal WharfBig Corn Island, just a smidgen off the gringo trail, is a conundrum. It has more than three times the land mass of its sister, Little Corn Island. It has five times the population (approximately 6500 versus 1200); it has the only airport and pier for transporting goods, services and tourists from the mainland. It even has the higher land form; Pleasant Hill (371 feet) as opposed to the stunted Lookout Point (125 feet). Yet a full 75% of the tourists who arrive on Big Corn Island depart almost immediately for Little Corn Island. The larger ferries even coordinate their departure times to coincide with the arrival of the twice daily La Costena Air flights from Managua to facilitate this exodus.

Brig BayOne result of this out-flux of tourists is that the service industry, which only tentatively began in the 1970’s and was stunted by the government’s disregard for the area until recently, is still in its infancy. This fact became obvious later when we realized that the largest hotel on the island boasted only twenty – count em’, twenty – cabanas. Little Corn has done a much better job of recruiting the tourist dollar with the hostels and hotels, SCUBA, snorkeling and sport fishing segments.  Tourism plays a small part in Big Corn’s economy with fishing –  shrimp, lobster and a variety of commercial fish – as the major economic engine of the island.Brig Bay Big Corn Island

Market near the commisary This reality was impressed upon us immediately when we went to pick up a few groceries in the late afternoon following our arrival on the island. Our host, Don, had advised us to go to the Commissary and the vegetable stand nearby to purchase some basic provisions for meals.  Once in the Commissary we observed dismally that half of the shelves were filled with cleaning supplies, paper goods, toiletries and the other half a random collection of canned and packaged foods.  To our questions of “Do you have any ground coffee, eggs, and butter the answer was an unapologetic “No, not today”.  The coffee was instant, the cheese American Singles, the bread a few odds and ends of older rolls and pastries.  We walked out with a small bag of oatmeal, pasta, some salad dressing (in the hopeful event that we’d find lettuce or vegetables) and a can of tuna.  No beans; none, not red beans, not black beans, not refried beans, not even bulk beans!  If possible, the vegetable shop a few buildings down was even less promising:  meager sunlight filtered through spaces in the roof to dimly illuminate boxes of limp, bruised, overripe and moldy offerings that we sifted through hoping that some strange insect wasn’t hiding in the box along with the food.  We arrived back at our abode dejectedly wondering just what we were going to do for grits for the next month.

Melody's Fortunately, Helen, the cook and housekeeper for our hosts, escorted us around the island the following morning. We went to Melody’s, a store with no outside advertisement for the uninitiated visitor, which had a fairly large assortment of groceries. Helen then showed us the Wharf Store, across the street from the municipal wharf, which was best stocked on Friday and Saturday after the ferry arrived with fresh provisions.

vegetable store by Nick'sShe showed us a restaurant where we could purchase freshly made tortillas. And we subsequently discovered other little tiendas where we could find foods that worked into our daily diet. It turned out that shopping was not all that complex, it just took some social interaction, a few stops and a bit of south of the border patience.The wharf store

By Richard and Anita, December, 2013

 

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica: Comfortable In A Familiar Sense

Jaco Beach looking northSome places are comfortable in a familiar sense. It’s not a feeling of déjà vu – not having been there before, but one of replication – having been someplace similar to it previously. That summed up the experience of Jaco quite neatly.  Jaco was like being at a surf-side town in the States.

Mar ArenasThe condominium where we stayed was a well-maintained, horse-shoe shaped affair, only thirty-two units, wrapped around a large pool on lushly landscaped grounds that would have done itself proud in any US beach town. It was bounded by privacy walls with a locked gate and carport, manned by a security guard and sat directly on the seashore on the quiet south end of Jaco Beach. The unit had recently been renovated and sported a kitchen backsplash between the granite counter and custom-made cabinets that was a vibrant, unique and playful mosaic scene hand-wrought by one of the owners who’s an artist.  It was a comfortable, modern affair with wi-fi, flat screen cable TV, ceran stove top, hot and cold water throughout and, the epitome of modernity, a commode that accepted toilet paper.

Jaco BeachJaco BeachWe were ensconced here as a reward by our patrons for whom we had house-sat for two weeks in Atenas. In recognition of our services while tending to their home and holding the pet carnage to a minimum of one prized hen, we were given the opportunity to recuperate in this sea-side paradise and go to sleep listening to the sound of breaking waves.

Jaco's main dragJaco itself is a recent affair having come of age as one of the premier surfing beaches in Costa Rica. For two-and-a-half miles the black sand beach slopes gently out into the Pacific. There is a steady stream of breakers which, while not large, are consistent. Surfing schools set up shop on the beach under canopies and provide instruction and board rentals to the hard-body twenty-somethings that come to learn and enjoy the waves.

Jaco's main dragThe town of roughly 10,000 souls is laid out behind the beach in a long strip between the surf and the coastal highway in the lush, verdant tropical forest. For all intents and purposes, it is a modern tourist town that would be at home on any US coast with similar price tags for both goods and real estate.  As in the US, SUV’s are the vehicles of choice. Chicken buses were conspicuously absent, replaced by Mercedes and Toyota buses as the most common form of public conveyance. Aside from the language and the currency, the modern restaurants, tour agencies, hotels and souvenir shops felt like they could be in Anywhere, USA.

Jaco's main dragIn this familiar setting we experienced our first encounter with crime since we’ve been travelling in Latin America. We had gone to eat an early dinner with Mario, our host, and some of the other home owners of the condominium who had just concluded an annual meeting. After the meal we went to climb back into his SUV, walked a few steps back and forth in puzzlement and… the vehicle was gone – vanished –disappeared! There were patrons of the restaurant sitting at sidewalk tables but no one heard or saw anything suspicious. The police were called, reports filed, insurance claims initiated but it was all with a sense of futility.  The damage had been done and, most likely, the vehicle wouldn’t be recovered. It was perhaps fitting that it happened in Jaco. In this modern town, in this modern country, the old crime of boosting cars on a Saturday night was reminiscent of home. As I said; comfortable in a familiar sense.Sunset

By Richard and Anita, November, 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

 

There’s Art In Them There Hills – The Pueblos Near Granada

Making a pot

We had been in Granada, Nicaragua for a few days when we arranged for a trip to the pueblos in the hill country to the northwest of the city. We had read of a couple of these villages or heard of them while visiting Leon and others were recommended by our local contacts. So it was, on another bright and sunny Wednesday morning, we set out to see the artists’ villages.

Hammocks at the Masaya mercado

Handwoven hammocks

We’ve enjoyed visiting the  mercados found in each colonial city and we had strolled through the largest market in Granada on Tuesday during an afternoon walk. However, we  noticed and remarked upon the fact that the Granada market was lacking the abundance of hand crafted items that usually fill a substantial portion of the stalls.

Entry to the Masaya mercado

outside the Masaya mercado

The conundrum was answered first thing the following morning. Masaya is billed as the “Artisans Capital of Nicaragua”; this statement was repeated later by others in Managua and Granada. The weavings and pottery absent in Granada during our market tour were found here in the Masaya Mercado. It is contained within a walled compound in the city and is filled with traditional woven clothing, beautiful handmade leather shoes, boots, handbags and cowboy hats,  colorful tiles and gorgeous pottery, handsome hardwood bowls, chairs and other furnishings both unadorned and painstakingly, intricately carved, and paintings by numerous artists. Because we visited in the opening hours of the mid-morning and during the low season, the aisles were unusually empty, but this only added to the discounts the vendors were offering for their wares.

Handmade footwear

Wood fired kiln

Wood fired kiln

After wandering throughout the Mercado, we gathered our lone purchase, a bottle of local honey to share with our Granada host, and headed for San Juan de Oeste, a mecca for pottery. Some San Juan pottery was shown in the market stalls in Masaya and much more was on display in the shops of the village. That morning we visited the taller (workshop) of Valentin Lopez, a potter who works with natural dyes and wood fired kilns. His workshop and showroom also serve as his home, where his sons apprentice in the trade, so we were appreciative of the hospitality of the family in explaining the process involved in the creation of both his utilitarian and decorative art. This visit was perhaps the high-point of the day but it evoked the cruelest feelings when trying to explain to the family why not even the sturdiest or smallest of the ceramic pieces was appropriate for our limited luggage.

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

Santa Catarina flower  shop

A short tour of Pueblo Catarina was sufficient to establish it as the gardening center for the region. In fact, Santa Catarina and the surrounding countryside provide the majority of the bedding plants and cut flowers for Granada and Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The small puebla vibrated with the colors of the numerous blooms. At the top of this hilly city was the Mirador Catarina, an overlook for Laguna Apoyo, a warm, fresh water lake in a volcanic caldera.

Laguna de Apoyo

The drive down to Laguna Apoyo took us into the Reservada Nacional, the protected area around the lake. There are several hostels on the edge of the lake, a Spanish language school and a few private homes, but most of the land on the hillsides is undeveloped. And judging by the large family of spider monkeys which we spied near the water’s edge, the forest remains healthy in these hills above Granada.

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

By Richard and Anita, October 2013

 

Getting To Leon, Nicaragua: Another Muggy (But Not So Buggy) Location

Some trips probably seem long before they even start!  (Leon, Nicaragua)

Some trips probably seem long before they even start! (Leon, Nicaragua)

We left Utila at the end of September and took the early ferry to the La Ceiba dock where we met Omar who would transport us on our journey from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Omar was an enterprising and entertaining young Honduran who spoke fluent English. However,  he was still working the bugs out of the direct shuttle company he had launched a couple of months before which filled a transportation niche on the gringo trail between the northern coast of Honduras and the colonial city of Leon in north-western Nicaragua. A late start was occasioned by a wait for additional passengers and a heated discussion over the wisdom of lashing backpacks and suitcases to the roof of the van with no luggage carrier or tie downs. This resulted in another delay while we waited for a second vehicle and driver to accommodate the extra passengers and luggage. Once underway the ride went smoothly. 

Until … we were stopped at a military checkpoint in Honduras and Omar realized he’d left his driver’s license at home.  A gratuity of about $10 USD resulted in the okay to proceed but we spent the rest of our time in Honduras dodging military checkpoints and roadblocks. Omar picked up a friend along the way with a driver’s license who drove the van across the Honduras-Nicaraguan border. Finally, after our nineteen hour journey, we arrived safely in Leon in the dead of night.

Pedicab - another form of transportation

Pedicab – another form of transportation

The largest Cathedral in Central America

La Catedral

The original city of Leon was established in 1523 and, after Managua, is the second largest city in Nicaragua.  It’s an important industrial and agricultural hub with a picturesque, traditional city at its historic heart that is easy to traverse by foot. Most visitors come to Leon to see the colonial architecture which includes the 18th century cathedral, the largest in Central America. Additionally, it‘s the intellectual center of the nation; a fact bolstered by the presence of the national university.

This time of the year is known as “muggy and buggy” and one thing the guidebooks emphasized  was the oppressive heat in Leon.  We, of course, figured that the heat and humidity couldn’t be any worse than Utila but, in that, we were wrong.  Each day we arose, showered and then sweated through our clothing in a matter of minutes while walking around the city. Even when sitting in our B&B with the fans whirring, we would feel a trickle of sweat running down our backs.

Reminiscent of Ghost Busters - the fumigator's equipment

Ghost Busters flashback – the fumigator’s equipment

As for the bugs, we witnessed the Leon bug eradication program in action – weirdly reminiscent of  a scene from the old movie Ghost Busters.  First thing one morning, and later that day throughout the city, a couple of young men with gas masks and backpacks carrying the gas-powered, insecticide applicators appeared to fumigate our premises. We stood in the front courtyard while they walked from room to room spraying each area and, soon enough, clouds of noxious  fumes began roiling from the building.  Out of the fog appeared our fumigators wielding their strange weapons and promising that the premises were bug free for another few months.

The fumigator (in uniform)

The fumigator (in uniform)

By Anita and Richard, October, 2013

 

Tourist Trees, Jesus Lizards, Chirping Geckos And Other Island Oddities

A view from Pumpkin Hill

A view from Pumpkin Hill

the "Tourist Tree"

the “Tourist Tree”

A few days ago we donned long pants – very difficult to do when it feels like 300% humidity and 200 degree heat – and set off with our guide on a horseback ride to Pumpkin Hill, the highest point on the island of Utila at 243 feet.   Sterling, whose ancestors emigrated from Arkansas to Utila in the late nineteenth century, was a fount of information on the flora and fauna of the island.  He pointed out the blue land crabs as they scurried across our path, the numerous reddish-hued trees called “tourist trees” by the locals (because they are red and always peeling) and the Jesus lizards, which run upright on two legs and can sprint across water, hence the name. 

Happy trails

Happy trails

 It was a quiet morning, riding through the dense, green growth of the island’s interior with the creaking of saddle leather providing the accompanying sound to the clopping of our horses’ unshod hoofs, culminating in a panoramic view of the island and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

Mini-golf balancing act

Mini-golf balancing act

Now, horseback riding is only one of many activities in which we’ve engaged during our stay on the island.  There’s Ed’s Reptile Gardens Mini Golf, an original and very quirky exercise in chasing one’s golf ball across rocks, holes (intended and not), next to sculptures complete with swim fins and reposing dummies, into caves and onto balancing-act greens.   On many of the holes, the assigned par score seemed merely a suggestion as we’d add up scores of eight, nine and ten strokes, search for our balls in the ground’s nooks and crannies all the while hoping we wouldn’t encounter a scorpion or tarantula and laughing with evil glee when we came in with the low score on a hole. 

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Our guide on the way to Pumpkin Beach

Another day we amused ourselves by borrowing a friend’s ATV and, with a couple of adventurous cohorts, explored the deeply rutted paths through mud and deep puddles while trying to find Pumpkin Beach (coincidentally next to Pumpkin Hill).   A local boy on a bike answered our question of “which way to Pumpkin Beach?” and, with a brilliant and genuinely friendly smile, rode his bike as fast as he could to lead us back to the meandering track on the way to a rocky and coral strewn shoreline with the far off smudge of Honduras on the horizon.

We’ve spent many mornings snorkeling and afternoons lying in hammocks reading as well as sitting on deeply shaded porches waiting for a stray puff of wind with new friends talking, trading histories, funny tales and sharing laughs.  The conclusion to many days is a ritual of doing “sunset”  which takes place at the watering holes with names like Tranquila, Driftwood and Babalu’s located on the bay front. Here the locals, divers, expats and tourists gather to watch the sun descend prior to heading out to the numerous restaurants or home.

Sunset view reflected in the  water from Tranquila

Sunset view reflected in the water from Tranquila

A chirping gecko clinging to the ceiling

A chirping gecko traipsing across the ceiling upside down

Some evenings we’ll return to our third floor apartment and sit on the deck while the night brings a little relief to the day’s sweltering humidity and watch the bats swoop by the trees and eaves eating their fill of the little biting varmints (mosquitoes and sand flies).  Inside our home there are little geckos ranging in size from one to three or four inches clinging to our walls and vaulted ceilings or scampering across our shelves as self-appointed house pets, also doing their share of controlling the biting hordes.  Many nights we drift off to sleep or awaken during the night to hear them chirping and clicking to each other as another island day ends.

By Anita and Richard, September, 2013

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