1/25/15 05:10 pm - Trip to Boaco, NI
1/25/15 05:10 pm - Trip to Boaco, NI
6/8/14 02:37 pm - Living as an Expat in Jinotega, NI
Thinking over the last week about expatriation and why some people end up leaving or pretty much avoiding learning Spanish after a few years. I think most Americans don't take trips to foreign countries for the country, but for some kind of entertainment that may or may not be based on the country's culture. So they think they've been to foreign countries but what they did was see the monuments and stay at resorts which tend to resemble each other all over the world. Very few Americans speak a foreign language well enough to have complex and transparent conversations in anything other than English. The subject of most conversations I have is learning Spanish in one form or another, so this is as true for me as for the people I'm observing. Discussing complex ideas -- I just don't have the vocabulary yet. So, the host country puts up whatever makes the Americans happy, including English-speaking tour guides, waiters, and such.
When people actually move to a country, the stage hands yawn and the actors decide that these new people should speak the national language, and most people are just living lives that have little or nothing to do with the presence of foreigners in their midst. As many people here have friends who can't speak Spanish well as people in the US have friends who don't speak English well. And learning a new language is work (certainly is for me). And the only useful social end of the learning in another language community is being able to live in the second language, not just get along in it.
Not learning Spanish to fluidity, fluently, is, I think, the reason for the common desperation to find other English-speakers, to band together and not learn more Spanish. One of the problems is that Spanish in the US is, for most people, what the help speaks. To be genuinely fluent is to be part Hispanic.
3/4/14 07:00 pm - Some photos from either my Sony A3000 (some with an adapted lens) or my Panasonic GF1
Some things I have around the house.
A good sunset here.
Macho Raton, a festival mask made of painted paper mache.
My block has been getting major surgery on the water and septic system for the last three weeks.
1/30/14 11:19 am - Dreams and Realities
One guy is trying to find out how to sell expatriation informational seminars to people who pay $300 to $600 to feed a fantasy of moving to a cheap tropical paradise just like the US only warmer and with cheap servants. Basically, the seminars are like writing weekend seminars -- fulfilling the fantasy, and not terribly realistic.
One woman told me that I really should go to some script writing workshop that she'd gone to. I did the math on the money the guy was making and what he could reasonably expect to make as a script writer. He made far more money catering to the fantasies of the wannabees than if he actually wrote scripts for a living and had average success at that. And script writing as a fantasy is basically is an all or nothing proposition -- the people taking these workshop want to write for the TV and movie industry from the get go, not do small scale films on their DSLRs. The film industry suggests that a very high hit rate YouTube videos (the ones that go viral with hundreds of millions views) attract their attention. Don't pay money to have someone whose income is you to tell you the game is possible, just do it, write a script, get some friends to act, see what works and doesn't work in videos. Throwing stuff up on YouTube is free.
The basis of the aspirational seminars on anything is "You Can Do It." The seminars sell by making people feel optimistic -- and happy optimistic people then promoting the seminar rather than the career or the real move to other wannabes. Far more wannabees than people who will actually sell one script that goes to principal photography, so more money in selling the dream to them than actually making a living building houses in Nicaragua or writing for a living.
Nicaragua gets fewer than 200 legal pensionados a year, all countries and all nationalities other than Nicaraguan-born who come home under a different category. People get stuck here -- into a house they paid too much for that they can't sell without a loss. Renting saves a lot of grief if people decide this isn't for them, but people who bought houses in the US want to buy here and want to do that the same way that they bought in a country where the real estate agents are licensed and where neighborhoods are generally more economically segregated than here and where there are comps and multiple listings, and where a prospective buyer can talk to potential neighbors in a common language. None of this exists in Nicaragua outside areas that do cater to gringos. I live in a city of 50,000 that has no real estate agents. No real estate agents are licensed; there's nothing like the US system for buying and selling land. The real estate market in one hot expat spot is flat -- that's the reality, not the sizzle.
The guys who are successful at the writing seminars tell everyone that Hollywood is looking for fresh ideas from 40 year old business men. Reality is that agents are more likely to cruise commercially published book fiction for potential new clients than look at unsolicited MS from people who've had one weekend seminar in script writing. Or agents look at the kids coming out of the UCLA movie training program (for better or worse, nobody expects fresh new writers to be starting in their 40s -- some of the genres with older readerships being somewhat the exception).
Most of the people reading International Living or watching the International House buying programs or taking the seminars want to imagine a Nicaragua that's just like home, only with cheaper servants. People who were doing good to have three times a week housecleaning service will be able to have a maid and a gardner. The fantasy can work forever if they don't come here and deal with the realities of having maids who run laundries and rent rooms while they're away for a few months, or who steal, or who simply don't call when they're skipping a day for a family emergency. One snowbird here came back to his finca to find that his crew had sold off all the timber up to the ridge lines (legally forbidden to protect watersheds) and left him having to deal with the Nicaraguan environmental protection people.
The International Homebuying programs are often simply utterly scripted and not really about a real house purchase (one woman who was on International Home Buying said that the house that was represented on the show as being a $130K house was actually their $30K house that they'd first rented and then bought and fixed up).
Retiring to the tropics can be a heart-warming fantasy that avoids the realities of malaria, of constant visits by the Heath Department to spray for dengue mosquitos, of beggars homing in on English being spoken or on someone looking obviously foreign, and the advertising sound trucks. Yeah, people can avoid all but the dengue and the more enterprising thieves by living in a gated community and driving a car every where and having central air for more money than it would cost to retire some place off the coasts in the US or southern Europe or Ireland.
Learning Spanish from scratch is non-trivial, either, and no, they don't speak English if you don't speak some Spanish -- and that's happened to me a lot recently (I recently met four or five bilingual Nicaraguans and none of them switched to English until I'd spoken as much Spanish as possible with them. This also happened to me with the Intur woman I dealt with when I first came here.
Nicaragua gets people who buy land and sit on it waiting for the Cargo Planes -- the mythical thousands of North Americans who will settle here in the future and who will buy overpriced land at even higher prices. If a tenth of the Hispanic population in the US retired back home or wherever their grandparents left them houses, that would more than cover the American citizens living outside the US but in the Western hemisphere and not military now.
Costa Rica dealt with the speculation and holding problem by having really short terms for adverse possession. If in six months, you haven't noticed the squatters on the land and gotten rid of them, you don't own the land anymore. Costa Rica didn't have the same sort of land speculation and holding that the Nicaraguan government is trying to discourage by raising the taxes on land that's not built on or actually used for agriculture.
I live near one of the stalled developments where lots over ten years go went for $29K for less than a half acre. The developer abandoned the country in 2006 after Ortega was re-elected. There's not a single expat house on the place. "If we build it, they will come" has an erie tang of native superstition about it. The Cargo Cult of a future full arriving North American retirees in their thousands has littered Nicaragua with half built hotels, gated community where the one actual road leads to a cow pasture, but the guard is still there, most of the time, even if the board fences are now barbed wire. The development still has its web page, with an imaginary club house.
What seminars sell is the fantasy -- and as with fiction, the details that seem convincing are what makes the fantasy work better. If anyone explained what Nicaragua outside the coastal all-expat communities was really like, a lot of people wouldn't come here. What benefits Nicaragua are people who are at least content here, because they're going to give good word of mouth, show other people around who come to Nicaragua to see if it really will work for them. People who don't freak out about the bugs and cane toads and geckos in their houses will be happier here than those who do freak out.
Cargo Culting -- not just for illiterate natives of New Guinea.
1/28/14 09:27 am - The Fantasy of the coming baby boom of international retirees
The thing is the best information is also from the Nicaraguan official web sites and from the Nicaraguan consulate. A lot of people will do anything they can to avoid interfacing directly with Nicaraguans. Basically, most retireees are going to stay home. I'm hearing that most people are planning to work until they're seventy -- and most people that age are not moving away from their support system in place. This coming wave of Americans who are going to retire to foreign countries seems to be as mythical as the million American retirees in Mexico. Aiming promotion to the retiring adjuncts, who can continue to teach in Nicaragua, who are likely to have small pensions make a certain amount of sense. Aiming promotion of Nicaragua to people who have larger pensions and savings who can afford to buy the spectacularly overpriced houses in Granada, San Juan del Sur, etc., is silly because those people have the whole world to choice from. Nicaragua considered going to a minimum of $1,000 a month and decided not to because that would put them in competition with the rest of Central and South America ($800 or $900 a month for Ecuador). It's worth it to Nicaragua to have Americans who have sub-$1,000 pensions who learn Spanish and scatter themselves around the country.
Most of the people retiring here were born in Nicaragua and are coming back now that los ricos have found out that Daniel Ortega doesn't bite. A few are people who always wanted to live in a different culture -- having as many or more Nicaraguan friends as having other expat friends. The people who buy to have a warm place to escape the winter basically have little to do with Nicaraguans other than the help. That's predominantly coastal. According to a friend who is ex-military, most military retirees live either near their last duty station or go back to their home towns.
It's a fairly rare person who retires to a foreign country for basically good reasons. A rather large number retire to Nicaragua, as one expat put it, to get a better class of women (in terms of beauty) than they could ever get close to at home. Or boy, for both sexes. Or they come here because the liquor is cheap and the law doesn't bother pot smokers much, and some come because they think they could create a business here since the labor is so much cheaper.
I'm the only expat of the ten I know of or know personally who is actually happy here. I suspect the ratios are higher elsewhere. I'm urging people who travel to come here (may have sold a bank phone clerk a trip to Nicaragua yestereday when I was setting up a different bank account). I don't think I'd urge anyone to retire here who hadn't lived happily in a large US city with a diverse population unless they were married to a Nicaraguan. Almost every other nationality seems to be happier here than North Americans.
When people start talking about $600 seminars and $200K houses, we're talking about people who will be buying in to expat colonies along the coast. And they can buy into coastal areas anywhere in the world, including English-speaking areas.
Those of us with the sub $1,000 pensions can spend money locally without inflating prices, without making things shakier for Nicaraguans who make $300 a month or less. For the urban folks, we have solo about $100 or $200 more a month than a two income family with non-professional jobs. We can't afford to buy farmland, so farm prices don't go out of the range of real farmers. Frequently we rent, don't buy, and because we're more integrated into the Nicaraguan community, we tend to be cannier when we do buy houses ($25K is still too high for one house I was looking at), so we don't drive local real estate bubbles.
But most people with sub $1K pensions are not likely to come here because they may not have the initial nut for the move ($5K minimum, better with $10K).
The very rich are likely to have second homes in Europe. I talked to a Swedish tourist yesterday and people retired to be warmer, but not to live cheaper since European pensions are sufficient for living in a range of place in Europe.
We don't vote; Nicaraguans do. If Nicaraguans believe that we're not a net gain for Nicaragua and are causing inflation without a parallel rise in local wages to do better than inflation, we don't get to stay. The more people they can attract who don't cause inflation, the better for the country.
The people who will be happy here are poor but clever, and able to deal directly with Nicaraguans because they've successfully worked for or with blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, Cherokee, etc. The ideal candidate for retiring here? One guy left rural Virginia and became a wandering computer tech and English teacher in Indonesia, the Netherlands, Qualla Boundary (Cherokee reservation in NC), and who knows where since I knew him. Probably won't have much of a pension, but he's flexible enough to not try to fix Nicaragua.
If I had sufficient income from something other than writing more (and if that started selling as well as my first book, I wouldn't ever leave Jinotega out of sheer superstition), I'd probably look at Mexico or Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, or the Sierra foothills, or Ireland.
We don't have violent crime against expats in the north; San Juan del Sur and Granada do. The kid beggars here are just hobbyists and there really aren't that many of them. Similar thing in Manhattan. Where the people coming in to gentrify were seriously richer than the people they were beginning to displace, the robberies were meaner and sometimes lethal. Lower East Side, some of the hippies had to talk novice muggers through the steps. I had some kids pull back in a doorway and say, "Hey, don't mess with her."
The darker and more aggressive crime seems to go with a general community disapproval of the new comers, or community disapproval of a specific person. We have one guy here who's been mugged twice and another expat said that basically, if the muggers got him in broad daylight in front of his neighbors, the neighbors didn't care what happened to him.
One hotel owner in San Juan del Sur complained about the crime there, insisted that the National Police had to do something, that his guests said the crime was the worst of any place they'd been (memory edits, I suspect). The solution for this is saturation policing -- but would the hotel industry pay for this? Someone has to. Honduras can focus on Roatan and Copan because those place have huge enough draw to pay for saturation policing and that's about it for commercial developed tourism in Honduras.
US stats on crime and gated communities are that after the first year, the crime rate is only slightly lower than the surrounding community. Thieves learn how to game the system and they know that the cops are often further away. Cops being further away would definitely be the case with the failed Apanas Estates where a squatter community is the closest Nicaraguan community to the site.
Visit first. Granada will be no cheaper than any number of places in the US with fewer child beggars, though I suspect some people love being the rich altruistic American looking at squalor from an amused distance and doling out 5 cordoba coins to the urchins. Occasionally one of them gets murdered, but Nicaragua doesn't have the gringo kill rate of Costa Rica, El Salvador, or Honduras because Nicaragua doesn't have the numbers of gringos those places get -- possibly due to statistics and I don't know the per capita kill rate against volume of tourists, possibly due to gringos not having made as much of a mess as they have in those other countries.
Any time I hear someone talk about the future wave of retiring baby boomers, I think that person is really a bit dotty to think US citizens are going to leave a culture they're familiar with to move to foreign shores. Americans mostly don't travel outside the US and more than fifty percent of the trips for people who do are to Canada and Mexico. Less than fifty percent is to the whole rest of the world. I wouldn't be surprised if most of that less than fifty percent weren't to developed resorts in the Caribbean or to England, France, or Italy. If they aren't even visiting other countries other than to go to developed resorts, why imagine that they're going to really retire in a different country? Mexico is near the US and doesn't have as many expat retirees without family in Mexico as is commonly believed.
Costa Rica was near Panama and was in the 1980s the only country down here other than Panama that wasn't having civil wars and unrest. So it fell into the category of "Near last duty station" and the only game in the region.
Nicaragua has it ideal retiree niche but those people aren't going to make money for people trying to convince others that a $200K house in Granada is an investment. We're welcome and we can supplement our pensions by giving advanced English lessons or classes in anything else we're taught in our days as academic gypsies.
1/27/14 06:29 pm - A day in Jinotega
Yesterday, I found a dog that had been hit and who was in the gutter still breathing but not even crying. Two Nicaraguans walking their dog stopped. I had my vet's phone number with me and one of the women called her to explain the situation in better Spanish. Another person on the block had also tried to get the vet earlier in the morning. After a while of my Spanish, two or three of them began speaking English. Two people helped put the dog on the piece of cardboard and took him in the house of a couple who'd tried to get help for him earlier. The vet told me today that he'd made it through the night.
When I was asking about the dog today, I went through the same process of using what Spanish I had the day before conversation switched to English and then circled around to Spanish again, sort of. This is very common -- and I've heard the French also do the same thing. If you ask if people speak English, sometimes the answer is no, here or in Paris. Turns out the dog's rescuer also offered to pay the vet for the care and is Mexican Nicaraguan and we talked about Mexico a bit. I've never been, but flew by Volcan Oriziba and want to go there some April when it's even hot in Jinotega. It's the tallest mountain in Mexico and the area it's in, the woman told me, is beautiful. I'd done some research and it's not a huge expat area, though there was obviously one expat there who could report that.
Then, a couple of blocks away on the way back to my house, a man asked me in German if I was German, and I answered that I was Americana. We talked; he knew my German friend here; showed me the house which was his grandmothers and which is over 150 years old, mud and cane with some modern lathing replacing cane that had rotted out (don't envy him the job of repairing that house, but he's familiar with building and wood working). He has a spectacular garden and I asked if I could come back to photograph birds.
Very basic house inside -- not something that the average North American would buy, but with its own integrity with wooden stairs up to the second floor and the usual big sala. The toilet and shower were outside the house proper and he said he was on a well, which is unusual now.
Very pleasant day, a long talk with a Swedish tourist, then my Spanish class where the conversation was about the dog, then fooling around on line, and a walk to check on the dog in the late afternoon.
1/3/14 05:14 pm - Selva Negra with Geese
This is a great place to visit in Nicaragua if you like good food and coffee, and like hiking or horseback riding.
12/9/13 09:45 am - Nicaragua for Beginners
Stuff about Nicaragua that my crazy homeless neighbor and some others taught me: Charity is what you do to inferiors (crazy homeless lady may be crazy and homeless -- she has decided that I do not get to give her money anymore since we're vecinas (neighbors). Friends help each other in a reciprocal fashion (crazy homeless lady bought me cheese one day). If this is a general Nicaraguan perception, it may explain why the charity-built women's educational center near Lake Apanas now has a collapsed roof and hasn't been used for anything but storage and a methane production tank for a school didn't get repaired when the gas line broke.
Other stuff -- people either move to Nicaragua to live mostly in Nicaraguan culture or they move to Nicaragua because they like the expat community in a particular place and Nicaragua is just the backdrop to their expat lives. The rule in either case should be rent for a year before buying. Renting may be better than buying if the house prices are more than 20 years of rent.
Selling houses here is not easy -- and if things have been on the market for years and are vacant, the price will go down when the current owner dies and the heirs want to cash out of their inheritance (one guy in Philly owned tens of blocks of the Northern Liberties which blighted development for decades -- once he died, the heirs sold it all off for reasonable prices and the Northern Liberties boomed).
Many expats have bought property in various other parts of Nicaragua beyond the gringo enclaves. It does require doing title searches and knowing what to look for, but I know gringos here who have property where if their neighbors could do something to get them off the property, the neighbors would have, so titles are secure enough outside Granada and San Juan del Sur. Telling people that the only place to buy is Granada is now a lie since I've confirmed that it's not true. Rent for a year, find out what things really sell for, what the demand for rentals is over houses for sale (Jinotega rentals go in about a week or less if the price is sane, and never if it's not).
Nicaragua is the size of New York State and even more economically varied. You don't pay Manhattan prices in Watertown. There's no part of the country where there aren't some expats who can tell you about local conditions (and long term leases on indigenous lands are not impossibly bad deals, either, just not so good for building a real estate empire here).
The more gringos and tourists, the more crime goes up -- this is pan-human. Talk to people who know a place and don't have real estate for sale about the local crime problems. I cringe when people talk about Nicaragua being safe -- compared to most suburban parts of the US, it's requires the same caution you'd need to live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1970s (did that). If you're the kind of person who'd never walk even during the day time in an ethnically mixed working class urban neighborhood in the US, you will be uncomfortable most places here. A few neighborhoods in Managua that have private guards and which are economically stratified are the closest Nicaragua comes to the kind of places most middle class Americans grow up in.
You have to come to terms with children begging. I don't give any child money unless they were watching my dog while she was tied up outside a store (they get paid for not kicking her). Jinotega's child beggars are generally average kids who are trying their luck and half the fun is seeing a gringo turn red and start yelling at them. Granada's and Managua's child beggars are sent out by parents who drag combs down their arms if they fail to make their quota (saw the marks in Managua). The girls are being raised to whores; the boys to be thieves and drug runners. Buy them a meal if you must do anything, but Granada is trying to reduce their numbers and keep the children in school.
Another thing is adult beggars. I give to people who are crippled, older, and I don't give money to the crazy lady anymore, just a tortilla or some salt or some water.
Everyone's Nicaragua is different. I lived in Manhattan for seven years and thought that New Yorkers from other parts of the state could be approached in the same way. However people from Buffalo are more like Midwesterners, and people in Albany (where I was in graduate school for two years) were different yet. It's entirely possible for an expat who's lived many years in one place to know that place better than a Nicaraguan who never lived there, with the most marked differences between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
6/30/13 09:24 am - Almost Three Years in Jinotega, Nicaragua now
Thinking SHERLOCK's treatment of the Chinese, based on 19th Century British prejudices in the original material, and about how people go nuts on one of the web forums when I compare northern Nicaragua to the Virginia and West Virginia mountains, people always have negative stereotypes about other communities they're exploiting. Here can't possibly be like Appalachia because.... The dynamics of life are very much rural, agricultural, some industry and trades, professionals for medicine and law, some tourists, some resistance to tourists and outsiders, some truly insane outsiders (had them in Patrick, have one in jail here and the other presumably back in the US for treatment). Jinotega is not a safe FSLN department, but people seem to have gotten to the point where they can live with each other and the party differences. A few people miss Somoza, or being young.
I think people are over the fantasy that the gringos will come and bring prosperity by developing a tourist trade. One seller decided he didn't want to sell to Americans, and I've gotten the impression that I wasn't what the renting owner wanted for a tenant at least once. If local owners develop hotels, the money stays in Nicaragua; if it's a bunch of outsiders, they tend to spend their money back in the US (I know where my socks, camera, and various other things came from) or at the US-owned chains.
The smart thing to do in the Nicaraguan mountains would be to create space for Managuans and Leonese escaping the coastal heat. My neighbors are a Leonese couple who have their mountain retreat in town here, who drive an old BMW they're selling and a newer mid-sized Toyota that's new. As Nicaragua becomes more prosperous, more of them will be traveling in their own country. Doctors and dentists with good practices are golden anywhere.
North Americans often come across as impossibly gauche in a country where even the homeless beggars have their standards. There's a flavor that the world should be about them, what they see as important.
The other thing is an intense and open curiosity about people, acquaintances noticing and remarking on weight loss, insect bites, and all that, which doesn't have the same flavor that it would have in the US, but seem to be protective considering the diseases in the tropics This eventually makes North Americans seem lacking in curiosity, which doesn't make them seem more polite, rather less. It's rather disconcerting to people newly in country getting introductions through someone who has been here a while.
3/25/13 09:57 am - My Grandfather, my father, and me (also on Facebook)
My grandfather was a Lincoln Republican. When the family was back together for my dad's memorial service, we talked about this. One sister pointed out that Grand-dad was also a member of the Moral Majority. I think that that age of men trusted their leaders to be looking out for them and were far more easily flattered by attention from the famous and powerful than I ever can imagine being. Even my Dad talked in his 30s and 40s about "men of good will" who ran the country. I never imagined that anyone with significant power or money even knew any realities of the lower half of the population and probably didn't have much contact with people who weren't employees or who weren't also well-off or famous. And employee/employer relationships tend to be distorted. By Dad's fifties, he was less credulous. But my grandfather trusted his employer more than he trusted me -- and paid more for my wood stove (by about $5) than the one I found (same shape).
Being precisely a Lincoln Republican in 1920, when old Civil war veterans, including his own father or grandfather were still alive, was something different, as were his collections of early electrical systems and devices, the house with the Delco battery plant that he moved into when my Dad was about 12.
My mother also had that trust that the rich would be willing and interested in helping others, though not as much. I can't imagine anyone my age, left or right, believing that. If we have friendships or connections with anyone significantly better off than we are, the deal is that we both try to avoid bringing up the difference and that we respect who we are as people.
Here, in Nicaragua, before the Revolution, some of the poor tried to get people who were better off to be the godparents of their children, had a sense that those people would help their children. There's also a sense in some ethnic groups and families that the family will find the children jobs (my father hated this so much since that meant the children of privilege got the better jobs -- he disliked ever helping his own children get jobs with the companies he worked for and only did this once for a summer job for me and once for one of my brothers. His uncle and FDR's WPA program for college students helped him graduate from Virginia Tech. The very good GI Bill then paid his way through Harvard, though my mother worked for a Harvard researcher while they lived in Boston, so perhaps the money didn't support a man and his wife. My father was a Republican for a while as a younger man, voted for Eisenhower, but changed over time and supported Democrats as an old man.
Both my grandfather and my father improved their lives though my grandfather had to start over again once when he failed to become a mill hand in Martinville, VA (Depression, probably), for which I suspect those of us in the third generation should be grateful as Martinsville was a brutally class-divided city, with upper classes keeping out a library when Patrick County already had one, with the man who founded the Virginia Museum of Natural History being told not to do anything to make the mill workers dissatisfied with their lot in life.
My father heard various things about the class relationships from me and refused to believe them -- not that, not the comment from a mill supervisor that college prep programs "stole their best workers." My experience was that too often the ambitious mill hands were looted for money training for jobs that didn't pay that much better than their mill jobs and which would require more expensive clothes.
Our deal with the rich now is that we develop skills they need in improving their financial situations. We don't think they're interested in us qua us, but I can see the charm in believing that the world is fair and that people who have more power actually care for us.
The bartender's video of Romney's speech was a brutal reminder of how much of the population people like him simply write off.