By now Amy and I had visited many countries and had a good feel for the respective costs of living. Due to moving several times throughout our careers my present company would provide a very small pension and social security benefits were still six years in the future. Amy’s occupation would provide no pension payments in the future.
The easy way would be to work until I was 65 but it would be more difficult to then move out of the country and we are presently in good health. When we last checked, we only have one life and we did not want to spend it all in the corporate life. We had good jobs and many friends but we would always wonder what we were missing if we did not take the risk and the opportunity soon. We decided the jobs were a means but not an end.
With that decision behind us, we had to select a country. Due to my income being reduced to less than 10% and Amy’s going to zero, we must find a low cost of living and there must be opportunity for investment or a business to start. And of course, we must like the country and the people. Preferably, it would not be so far away that we could not return in an emergency.
The potential countries were Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Ecuador. Costa Rica was eliminated due to cost of living and opportunities for pensionados. Uruguay was tempting since it is similar to European standards yet with the lowest cost of living but it was too far away for Amy. Ecuador simply had too many unknowns. We decided to begin visiting Panama and Nicaragua more earnestly.
The Boquete area in the mountains of northern Panama was absolutely beautiful with a constant temperature in the 70s. Housing was not cheap but the cost of living was low. It was a good final place to retire but with few business opportunities. We were not yet ready for the rocking chairs on the front porch. We began concentrating on Nicaragua.
2006 January - Which Country?
We visit Nicaragua for the third time. We enjoy the time with natives and expatriates and make the decision to move to Nicaragua. The business opportunities seem very good and we may be able to make money on buying and selling real estate.
The development is mostly along the Pacific coastal areas but if the heat and humidity becomes oppressive we can always live in the mountains. We buy some land and some income property then pray the political environment remains stable.
There is no profit without risk and there is a land rush along the coastal areas as gringos invest in developing areas. Elections are in November and the Sandanista party is presently in the lead. There are good reasons for the past and present existence of the Sandinista party and the reader would be advised to review the history of Nicaragua if not of all Central America before condemning their popularity. Unfortunately socialism does not view private ownership of land as part of their overall platform.
The decision is made.
We decide to visit Nicaragua one more time to ensure we have all of our ducks in a row. We found a very inexpensive flight from Charlotte to Liberia, Costa Rica which is just an hour’s drive from the Nicaraguan border. It is not an easy trip.
Just before our flight approaches Liberia a small plane crashes on the one small runway. Our flight is diverted to San Jose where we sit in the airport for several hours. Apparently the crash has damaged the runway strip and repairs must be made. Eventually we board again then land late afternoon in Liberia. Our luck is better than the previous small plane since we land safely but it is too late to drive to Nicaragua.
We take a taxi to the same hotel we plan to stay at upon our return trip to the states. Unfortunately they have no rooms but direct us to another hotel in Liberia that does have a vacancy. The room is Spartan but adequate.
In the morning we take a taxi to the Nicaraguan border station that takes a little over an hour through the Costa Rican countryside. The taxi can not take us though the border so drops us off. We are swarmed by older and younger people offering some kind of service to get us through the border. We are overwhelmed by the people trying to grab our bags and help us.
It turns out you must fill out a customs form then walk several hundred yards through a “no man’s land” to the Nicaragua border station where your papers are checked then you can enter Nicaragua. We selected one of the swarms of people, paid them $5 and miraculously, they were able to get us to the front of the long lines, carry our bags across the “no man’s land” and deliver us to another taxi.
There are at least three reasons for this difficult experience and the apparent lack of love between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. First, Nicaragua is much poorer than Costa Rica and many Costa Ricans believe Nicaraguans take many of their jobs since they will work for lower wages. Hmmmm….. where have we heard that before? Second, many Costa Ricans argue the border dispute between the countries because Nicaragua has most of the San Juan river which could become the site for the next canal similar to the Panama Canal. Third, the contras, other troops and supporting air bases fighting the Sandanistas were based both in Honduras and Costa Rican during the war in the 1980s.
Even though we plan to take six to 12 months to learn the culture and language of Nicaragua, we do decide to begin our new life in San Juan del Sur (SJDS). Rents are going up quickly so we decide to purchase a small home. It should be no problem to sell it if we decide to move elsewhere.
SJDS is a small fishing village of over 15,000 people located on the southern Pacific coastline near the Costa Rican border. It is very popular with the Nicaraguans for holidays and vacations but it is also popular with the surfers that come from around the world for the world class surfing beaches. The area was greatly discovered, at least by the outside world, by some of the surfers that decided to make SJDS their home. SJDS and Granada are the two locations in Nicaragua most favored by gringos and where the land speculation rush first began.
SJDS is not large being smaller than a 10 X 10 block grid located on a beautiful crescent bay surrounded by cliffs that soar hundreds of feet above the waters. The hills over the water are dotted with homes on lots that four years ago could be purchased for less than $25,000 but now command up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Depending on placement, many can see the majestic coastline of Costa Rica to the south.
SJDS, itself, is a curious mix of native and gringo businesses. The most common native business is called a pulperia which, depending on the success of the owner, may sell a few household goods up to a fairly large inventory. It is the equivalent of our 7-11 or gas station convenience store. There may be four to six pulperias per block and this is common in every Nicaraguan city we have visited.
Our house is the typical Nica construction being built on a concrete slab with concrete walls. It even had a concrete sink behind the house. You don’t easily move concrete objects. There is a view of the bay several hundred meters away where I envision pulling in massive amounts of unknown species of fish.
There are two good-sized bedrooms with two large bathrooms, a small kitchen and a living area. The lot is large enough to build another home or swimming pool but definitely needs a garage with a storage area. Surprisingly, there is a great deal of landscaping already completed. Lawnmowers do not exist here since cheap labor with machetes is readily available. There are no closets or hot water but it is satisfactory for us.
The house is located about a mile outside of SJDS on a road that will be rough during the rainy season. There are four other houses near us and the area is called Little Bavaria. It is more than adequate and can be expanded at a later date if we wish.
We put a bid on the house and there are counter offers but we reach agreement. Fortunately we signed the contract just before someone offered a higher bid. Sounds like the good old U.S.A. Buying property is a cash deal in Nicaragua since there is virtually no financing available. This makes it more difficult to purchase but at least it keeps out the speculators that just put 10% down.
It is now time to go back and cut our ties in the U.S. It won’t be easy since we have many co-workers, friends and family that we sincerely like but we know we would regret not following our hearts. If we fail in Nicaragua we’ll live in a cardboard box or in a sister’s closet.
Amy is creating an inventory of our DVDs and VHS tapes. We know that movies will be a valuable commodity in Nicaragua and invaluable for swapping with friends there. We discover we only have one James Bond DVD. We could never leave the country without the complete collection of James Bond movies so all moving plans are put on hold until this crisis can be diverted.
EBay to the rescue! I spend most of the night on the Internet looking for an inexpensive collection. I finally found a Chinese collection that is around $50 for all 20 films. The ad states they will be the same as the originals but there will be no time to return them if we are unsatisfied.
You never make just one purchase on EBay. So……. I also buy two sets of 50 DVDs each of the Oscar winners for the past 50 years. I’m a little nervous that everything will arrive speaking Chinese with English subtitles. Learning Spanish in Nicaragua watching a Chinese speaking movie could be a challenge.
A week later the DVDs arrive and they are exactly like the originals. Thank goodness for other countries not following our copyright laws.
2006 Friday September 1
It is the last day of receiving a paycheck and there is some temptation to change our minds. The past week has been full of dinners with friends and drinks with associates. It is like the days just before your wedding. Lot of good times but with the constant, nagging thought of “What in the hell am I doing? Or Don’t worry, there is still time to stop this train!” Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the train could no longer be stopped. Many of our friends think we’re crazy and a few hope they can do something similar someday, though how many would pick Nicaragua? Several remark to us that we can do this only because we have no children but it does not sound convincing even to them. Es verdad is a common Spanish response meaning it is true or you got that right!
We were fortunate to have so many friends socially and at our workplaces. Now this was making it difficult to leave. My corner office on the 23rd floor in downtown Charlotte had already been cleared out in the past week. The only purpose for the last day was ensuring I said goodbye to everyone and especially those I worked most closely with.
The company had been very successful for the past 15 years and much of it was due to efforts of its employees. The amount of effort to handle the multiple acquisitions was almost overwhelming. As such, many friendships and relationships of mutual respect had emerged from the chaos. The informal organization was truly more prominent as a result. My leaving would have positive results since it would start the domino effect for several people to rise within the organization and sets the stage for some much needed new thinking.
My group arranged for some food and drink to be available and most of the morning is spent talking with old and newer friends. Some co-workers from other floors just want to find out why on earth we would make such a move. I will especially miss everyone in my group but also the monthly group luncheons with the delicious dishes from home; weekend golf with the guys; the funny things that just happen at work; the emailed jokes; the creation of unique solutions to work issues and the camaraderie created by harassing the corporate groups that seem to have no idea of how business works. I’ll even miss them.
It is now time to leave the corporate world forever for the last time. One last handshake or hug with everyone. Lord, please don’t let these people read my obituary someday outlining my career then ending with a statement of how it all ended in a homeless shelter in Chicago.
2006 Saturday September 2
Reality sets in. We’re going to freaking Nicaragua. For months we have planned to spend a week with each side of the family. A week will be spent in Illinois visiting the Bushnell family then a week in northern Wisconsin visiting the Sopinski side.
Today we must pickup a rental truck and pack it with all of the things we will give or return to members of the family. This includes family heirlooms such as Mom’s china closet, my grandfather’s gold watch and most of Amy’s paintings. A difficult task is breaking up my dragon collection.
I had collected dragons most of my life and many of them came from our international travels. The collection included a jade tortoise dragon from Beijing, a dragon chest made of Tibetan yak bone, a wooden dragon ship from southern China and many other unusual pieces. Most of the dragons would be given to nieces, nephews and friends. What a shame but they could not be shipped to Nicaragua.
Time to pick up the rental truck but there was a heavy rain last night and our truck is under water. The rental place tells us to come back later in the morning when the water has receded back to the river. A few hours later we pick up the truck.
The remainder of the day is spent packing the truck.
2006 Sunday September 3
We get a late start but finally start the drive to Yorkville, Illinois. Driving the truck was not as bad as I thought it would be. With the gas prices near $3.00 a gallon I envisioned outrageous gas mileage but it was not that bad. The biggest problem driving a large truck is that there is no rear view mirror. You know how you keep flipping the light switch in the dark when you have no power? It is the same thing. I keep looking in the rear view mirror even though it does not exist.
It is a beautiful drive through western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, Kentucky and a bit of Ohio. As we look at the country side we again wonder why we could not have settled for a cheap location in Tennessee or Kentucky instead of Nicaragua. We get all of the way to southern Indiana before stopping for the night.
Since we know we must learn to live on less than $25 per day for several years we decide to stay at the inexpensive Deluxe Hotel. The office is dark and is apparently the living quarters for the owner. The sign on the road states there is a vacancy but the office sign states no vacancy. I ring the office bell and feel this is exactly like the start of several horror films I had seen. I wait calmly for the proprietor to come out and hack me to death then go after my wife. The good news is that my company insurance still covers me for 30 days.
He seems confused whether he has a vacancy or not but finally decides that since the key to room #7 is there, it must be available. Apparently this guy did not graduate from Harvard. Still, he owns the hotel so he is ahead of me in some respect.
The room is pretty nasty but it is $30 for the night. It is so nasty I decide to keep my shoes on and not sure if I want my bare skin to touch the bed sheets. We again think of Nicaragua and wonder if this is the life we have coming up.
2006 Monday September 4
We arrive in Yorkville around 1:00 PM. For five days we have some of the most beautiful weather Illinois can offer. Good times are spent with Dad and the family. Nephews and nieces have grown up so much and changed quite a bit. We had timed this trip to be there during the Sandwich County Fair which starts on Wednesday.
This annual fair is held in Sandwich, Illinois about 10 miles from Yorkville and is what I consider probably the best fair in the U.S. though not quite as large as the North Carolina State Fair. On Wednesday we go with the adults to see all of the exhibits then return on Thursday with the kids to ride the rides and play games. Like at most fairs, we eat a lot of unusual and incompatible food that can not be resisted. The fair is still as good as when I was a kid. The rest of the week is spent playing golf, cards and visiting relatives.
On Friday morning my sister and I take our niece to the medical center for an endoscopy. Since she is studying for the medical field she is more aware of what is going on. I enjoy being there because the tests come back negative and it is so much fun speaking to someone that has just come out of anesthesia. They think they are speaking normally even when their responses take 20 seconds and they really have no idea what they are saying. A good hour is spent messing with her mind.
Friday night is the last night with my family though we hope to be able to visit again as much as we had in the past. Later Friday we pick up a rental car for the drive to northern Wisconsin and leave Saturday morning.
2006 Saturday September 9
We arrive in Minocqua, Wisconsin where Amy’s Dad lives. Again, we have the most beautiful weather and her entire family has gathered to see us.
Sunday is Amy’s birthday and her Dad has arranged a three hour boat tour with the family as a gift. This, of course, evokes memories of Gilligan’s Island that started with a three hour tour. Northern Wisconsin has thousands of lakes and many of them are inter-connected. The guide takes us out on a pontoon boat through three or four of the lakes pointing out various points of interest or related history. Bald eagles are everywhere, swooping down for fish or just soaring in the sky high overhead.
The rest of the week is spent playing horseshoes, catching up on family news and fishing. One evening, Amy’s dad and I go out for bass and quickly catch our limit. We are then shown how to filet the fish in preparation for cooking. This is a skill I hope I will need in Nicaragua. One morning I went out early to fish and a large pike or muskie follows my lure into the shallow water and strikes. Unfortunately he leaps into the air, laughs at me then snaps the line. Another fish story no one really believes but it was quite a thrill.
After a week of good times we drive to Minneapolis to catch our flight back to Charlotte.
2006 Saturday, September 16
Pack, pack, pack. Even though we don’t think we are shipping much to Nicaragua, the number of boxes continues to grow. We had sold our townhouse furnished but even just taking some clothes, CDs, kitchen utensils and some computer gear, the number of boxes is now over 100. We had planned on renting a 6 X 12 trailer to pull behind the Jeep to drive to Miami where everything would be loaded on a ship.
At the last second we decide to instead purchase a trailer since we would have little storage in our new home. We could use it to pick up purchased furniture and just park it in our yard for additional storage. It is the day before our departure and I know nothing about purchasing a trailer. Internet to the rescue for quickly learning the expected prices and available sizes. I quickly find there are no used trailers in the Charlotte area.
I find a trailer sales place in Mooresville which is about 30 miles away. Racing there I find a red one on sale though we must remove the Jeep’s spare tire to hitch the trailer. The paperwork takes a while since there must be a title just like for a vehicle. I don’t have time for this. My drive home is made easier by my experience with the rental truck since the rearview mirror is now useless with a large trailer behind me. Passing cars is a new experience since my vehicle is effectively now over 25 feet long.
Arriving home I now need to learn how to back up a trailer which is no mean trick. After several tries I’m now backed up to the townhouse garage. The rest of the day past midnight is spent packing the trailer and everything just barely fits. Every box is labeled with our names and a sequential number. This number corresponds with an inventory list we must provide to the US and Nicaraguan customs. What are we going to do with all of this stuff in our new, small home in San Juan del Sur? But it is all we will have in a new country.
2006 Tuesday September 19
We are dead tired but the carpet cleaners for the new owner arrive early and we must remove our final things. Our shipped goods will not arrive in Nicaragua for several weeks and we must pack bags to live out of for that period of time. Even though it will be way over our weight limit for the flight we decide we will take our DVDs with us since we had heard many stories of DVDs and other items mysteriously disappearing going through customs.
With over 300 DVDs the weight is considerable. We had previously removed all of them from their jewel cases and loaded them into CD carriers. These carriers are loaded into our carry on bags. How will we be able to carry these bags to the airport in Miami?
We finally are finished packing but don’t want to leave our beautiful townhouse even though it is no longer ours. We say our final goodbyes to neighbors and pull out. We have one final meeting with our financial advisor to sign necessary papers. It will be difficult in the future to get money transferred to Nicaragua. We stop at a bank and get some cash to make it through the next few weeks.
We leave Charlotte at 2:00 PM and make it to Savannah, Georgia. We call the Miami shipping expediter to warn her we will be there tomorrow.
2006 Wednesday September 20
Florida is a long state and pulling a full trailer takes my complete concentration. Veering even a small distance allows the heavy trailer’s momentum to take control. My respect for truck drivers increases immensely. We arrive in Miami during the late afternoon at a hotel recommended to be near the shipping location. We collapse in bed and again wonder why we are doing this. Corporate life was not always the most fulfilling but it certainly was easier. An appointment is made with the shipper for the following morning.
2006 Thursday September 21
The shipper is a Nicaraguan woman with great contacts and much experience. We had contacted the traditional shippers but they wanted up to $15,000 to ship our goods and then they would not put them through customs at the other end. Again, Internet to the rescue. I contacted people in Nicaragua that might have suggestions. One importer in Bluefields, Nicaragua took pity on us and provided his shipper though we would have to get the goods and vehicle to Miami. Regardless of the shipper, we knew the risks of getting everything through customs.
The shipper expediter, Gladys, sends her son to our hotel to direct us to the ship loading area. We arrive in a location filled with huge shipping containers. Ships normally are loaded with containers that are 8’ x 8’ x 40’ but can also be loaded with the ones you see on 18 wheel trucks that measure approximately 7’ x 7’ x 20’.
Gladys and her packers are waiting for us. She is sitting on a chair frame with a toilet seat attached to it and it is surprisingly comfortable. We think this is probably the last time we will see our household goods. They are able to drive the Jeep directly into a container. Due to the wheelbase of the trailer, it can not be loaded into the trailer but we find later they are able to lift the trailer onto the ship without unpacking it.
The shipping area is fascinating and is a beehive of activity. Huge loaders lift the packed containers into stacks then eventually move them by truck to the ship. The ship will leave the following Wednesday and take 10 days to arrive in Bluefields, Nicaragua. After being released by customs, everything will be loaded on a barge for delivery by river to Rama in the interior of Nicaragua. The Jeep and trailer will then be driven to Managua where we will take possession.
Sounds easy but it takes two days of paperwork in Miami. Since we now only have our bags, we purchased our flight tickets for departure. We will leave the following morning. At the last minute we discover we can leave some of our bags in the Jeep so we cut our load in half since we decide we do not need as many clothes immediately as first thought.