Back home, wherever that may be, some newspaper or magazine is about to feature a story about moving to Nicaragua. I know this for a fact because for the last six years and counting friends and family have been sending them on to me thinking I would be interested.
Not coincidentally, the stories tend to appear in the coldest months of the year when the weather is inclement in much of the northern latitudes and the days seem too brief. Lots of people find themselves musing about what paradise might look like, and the sort of articles I refer to only fan the flames and arouse more than just simple curiosity.
For reasons that hardly need an explanation, I lump these articles together into a subgenre I refer to as “Real Estate Porn.” Invariably the articles feature large, luxurious houses in spectacular settings, beach vistas and so forth. They rarely get around to mentioning what language the local people speak, or what it might be like to actually live in a foreign country. The true beating heart of all of these past and future articles has to do with buying power.
The articles tempt us with cheap real estate, a perfect climate, personal safety and affordable healthcare, roughly in that order. So is it any wonder that people spend so much of their time these days surfing the Internet in search of such visions of paradise? With a few mouse clicks you can jump from the Caribbean to Central America, from Ecuador to Panama, Tuscany, the Mediterranean or Ibiza. You can have a gander at Turkey, Portugal, the whitewashed Greek Isles, the Argentine vineyards and view a penthouses in Rio, or checkout beachfront lots, gated communities, farms and condos.
People said that Buenos Aires was the next new thing and everybody short-listed it until they discovered that the crime rate had just gone through the roof. They even looked at real estate and considered moving to former Eastern-bloc countries that they couldn’t find on a decent sized wall map. They tried to remember where Uruguay was. They projected themselves into lives all over the world without ever leaving the comfort of the computer screen.
With increasing frequency, Granada found itself onto the list of foreign fantasy spots. No wonder people consider the fantasy of paradise when there’s a fire sale going on and when all the aspects of a life on the treadmill fall away completely and a rum drink suddenly appears in your hand, with a few swaying palms flanking an intensely blue ocean. Who could resist such temptation?
During this mental journey to fantasyland, no one is thinking about diarrhea, open sewers, scorpions, marginal food or even obdurate waiters staring off into space. That comes later.
Expat newbies generally gush about the colorful life, the weather, the sudden buying power they have in a third world economy, and even the culture. They talk about their maids as if they were their new best friends. I suspect they even believe it.
Seasoned expats rarely talk about the weather except sometimes to complain about the heat. The weather really doesn’t change enough to warrant discussion. Instead, they talk about the frustrating bureaucracy, their idiot neighbor and his barking dog, the dust, the noise and yes, their lazy maid. In extreme lapses, they openly bash their host country for its inscrutable backwardness, petty thievery or downright lawlessness, and the lack of common sense. They also whine about the serious need for a decent Chinese restaurant.
I was immediately drawn in by Granada. I didn’t have any sort of plan or mental checklist when I decided to buy a home and put down some roots in Nicaragua. I never considered the real estate market or the likelihood of turning a quick profit. I liked the town immensely, and after five years here I still do.
It is small enough to walk everywhere, but large and varied enough that one doesn’t quickly become bored. I enjoy not being burdened by owning and caring about a car and all the hassles that inevitably come with it. I can buy most of my food in one of the oldest and liveliest markets in Central America and I go there almost every day to be a part of a vibrant culture at its best; the piles of fruit and produce, the smoky pall of the tortilla stall, the people, the noise of commerce and life around me. It reminds me why I am here in the first place.
You rarely see expats shopping for their food in the local market. They find it to be hopelessly disgusting; a filthy, malodorous place that is best avoided entirely once you have taken a few photos. They shop in the new air-conditioned supermarket on the edge of town where everything is wrapped in plastic, where the brands are familiar and they cater to the expat sensibilities, even if someone still mops over your feet while they are trying to decide which breakfast cereal to buy. Minus the mopping part, does it ever occur to them how much it all reminds them of home?
Successful expat life is about accepting tradeoffs which sounds curiously like non-expat life, come to think of it. Some of the people I initially met here have left and gone back to their past lives, or tried to find whatever they were searching for somewhere else. A lot of marriages founder in paradise, since new options seem to present themselves all the time. There are many people I don’t associate with anymore for a variety of reasons ranging from boredom (on my part) to criminal behavior (on theirs).
The expat landscape is constantly changing and shifting as people come and go, but the usual cast of miscreants, mercenaries and misfits, along with all the other familiar archetypes that populate paradise remains a constant.
I discovered that in Nicaragua noise is a form of currency and volume translates into wealth. Unless you are able to oscillate the roof tiles with your sound system or knock your neighbor’s fillings out of his teeth with your fiesta, you just haven’t made your mark here. In Latin America you soon discover that roosters don’t start crowing at dawn, by the way. They crow whenever they damn well please, but three-thirty in the morning always seems like a particularly favorite time to start. Cue the barking dogs.
Pre-dawn ensembles in the street that prominently feature the tuba accompanied by loud explosions and car alarms seem to be an integral part of any celebration here that one must learn to accept. And speaking of a lousy night’s sleep, my neighbor’s mango tree also keeps me up at night with a fusillade of fruit raining down on the tin roof of the bodega, which was cleverly built under the tree.
Once you get used to them, palm trees aren’t much different than anything else. The fantasy fades and you begin to realize that we are all captives of our imaginations. If you’re planning on sticking around for a while, you’ll have to find the reality of the place for better or worse.
The clattering of horse’s hooves striking the pavement just after dawn outside my door has become an unexpected bonus. I’ve gotten used to the sound of tuba music in the middle of the night and the noisy parrots that swarm overhead at dusk. The simplicity of walking two blocks down the street to buy a pineapple and a few tomatoes never gets old and the glimpses of courtyards stuffed with sunlight and greenery along the way thrill me as much now as when I saw them for the very first time. Of course I still enjoy the ripe avocadoes falling into my patio, but I also have to clean out the rain gutters and sweep up the dried leaves that fall in all the other months. Even paradise has its share of unglamorous chores.
In many ways, I guess I found what it was that I was looking for. I didn’t have the words to describe it when I first considered becoming a part-time expat, but it has a lot to do with the overall texture of the place. It is a more contemplative life, less filled with distraction and so many of the other artificial burdens we place on ourselves.
It turns out that palm trees and tropical breezes didn’t have all that much to do with it after all. And if paradise turned out to be harder to pin down than I had originally thought, my stay in Granada has taught me that it can exist only within that familiar landscape I carry with me wherever I happen to be.
Robert Skydell is a retired architect and restaurateur. He lives in Granada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts