What Did I Learn? Investigating Retirement as an Expat in Nicaragua

First of all, I didn’t fall in love with Nicaragua. Doesn’t mean I won’t, though. What I realized was that I might have been asking the wrong questions of myself when I spent four weeks in Nicaragua. I had hoped to be seduced by the beauty, or by the fragrance of the place, or by some other ephemeral characteristic that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Cathedral from La Calzada

Cathedral from La Calzada

In practice, it was nowhere near that simple. I found Granada to be beautiful, and intriguing, but also scruffy, in a not-quite-ready-for-primetime kind of way. As an older person planning to continue getting older there, I was a tad nervous about the up-and-down tiled sidewalks that changed elevation between one house and the next, with unexpected steps, slopes and holes here and there inviting stumbles and falls. At times, it seemed safer to walk in the street, but kamikaze taxi drivers and cyclists made that about equally hazardous. San Juan Del Sur had less traffic, but even more hazardous sidewalks. But being no more than three or four blocks from the ocean from any part of town–oh, that more than made up for the crazy sidewalks! It also has that delicious salty, sandy, seaweedy smell anchored in my memory from countless childhood vacations.

San Juan Del Sur

San Juan Del Sur

I learned that behind brightly painted but often unassuming metal-gated homes lurked maybe hundreds of gloriously restored Colonial homes, with lushly planted courtyards, sometimes including a pool, but that behind others were barren, almost unfurnished homes in advanced stages of disrepair—and that people lived in these homes with very little in the way of comforts. I saw children in their parents’ arms, suffering from conditions that are probably eminently treatable if a family has the money to get the help the child needs, which they didn’t. I saw evangelicals praying over street children, rather than finding a way to give them sandals, a home, or an education. I saw drunks sleeping it off on the streets. I also suspected that I could find many of the latter conditions in certain parts of Los Angeles, just as much as in Nicaragua. 2013-08-08

In rainy season, I expected rain, of course, but also imagined it would result in thousands of flowers, with accompanying fragrances. In practice, there were flowers visible here and there, more on the fringes of the city than in its heart, but I didn’t smell any fragrances, although the countryside was arrayed in glorious shades of bright green. I was somewhat unprepared for the power of the tropical rainstorms—I expected, as I wrote here, polite afternoon showers lasting an hour or so, with a return to blue skies and sunshine shortly thereafter. In practice, rainstorms could include thunder and lightning and last for three or four hours of torrential rain pounding down on tin roofs and sometimes unpaved roads, turning them into muddy torrents. The skies could be overcast, and the humidity oppressive, hours or days before a storm.

2013-08-09 14.25.53The people I encountered, both Nicaraguans and expats, were almost all kind, helpful and friendly, yet I understood that as a foreigner I would be viewed as a source of an endless flow of money (despite my need to live very frugally when I eventually arrive there) and a possible target for theft, mugging or worse. I took precautions accordingly, although I did not feel anything like the sense of danger I have felt in certain parts of Los Angeles that I would definitely avoid after dark.

The question I should have asked myself about Nicaragua, was simply: “Can I live here?”

Having not traveled for a number of years, I found that I had forgotten how much I enjoy it. In California, I struggle to fit sufficient exercise around my work schedule and other demands on my time. In Granada and San Juan Del Sur I had no car and walked everywhere, although in Granada I took taxis at night and for longer distances across town. Nevertheless, I covered not less than a mile a day on foot, usually in the early afternoon heat and humidity, and carrying a purse containing a day’s supplies for Spanish school and other needs, and a netbook computer.

The Halfway Point to the Cathedral

The Halfway Point to the Cathedral

After three initial days of no appetite and feeling overwhelmed by the heat and humidity and strangeness of it all, I settled in and became gradually more adventurous in my explorations. It seemed that over time, the walking got easier, even though my arthritic knee continued to bother me. Granada really is a walking city and for health reasons, as well as for the opportunity to see its delights up close, I came to appreciate that.

I learned that a modification of a typical Nica diet was adequate to sustain me, even with my slightly picky diet, and helped me lose weight (at least, in conjunction with the daily walking). I was in homestays in Granada and San Juan Del Sur for all but three nights of my four weeks, and so the vast majority of my meals were eaten with a family. I limited the amount of gallo pinto (fried rice and beans) I ate and stuck with poultry, fish, eggs, and veggies, usually with fruit in the mornings. I had almost no snacks, except for a couple of crackers mid-morning and some mid-afternoon smoothies (made with real fruit, without all the western-style additives, like high fructose corn syrup). The heat/humidity reduced my interest in locally-grown or locally-made delights such as chocolate and coffee and I couldn’t even bring myself to bring any of either home with me, though once back in California, I admit I regretted that decision!

I thought I was used to heat, living as I do in the California desert, but honestly, I work in an air-conditioned building until late in the day when the heat has abated, I drive an air-conditioned car, and take my walks just before sunset! In Nicaragua, I was out in the heat and humidity (and it was really the latter that got to me the most) every day, and while I treated myself to smoothies or the occasional brownie, I ate no snacks after dinner and very little over and above the meals provided to me.

Rapidly Disappearing Brownie and Healthy Juice Drink, Garden Café, Granada

Rapidly Disappearing Brownie and Healthy Juice Drink,
Garden Café, Granada

Getting away from prepared foods with all the nasty additives was refreshing and I believe allowed me to tolerate brief periods of hunger between meals, rather than compulsively seeking more food.

When I returned to California, I kept thinking to myself “I feel stronger!” and while this initially referred to my physical health, I found it also applied to my willingness to live differently in a different place—to be a semi-retired expat in Nicaragua. Over the course of four weeks, I acclimated (more or less) to the humidity, coped with the mosquitoes, overcame my fears of attempting to speak Spanish and did it anyway, mistakes and all, found my way around Granada and San Juan Del Sur on foot, managed to get along and communicate with my home-stay families and struggled diligently with some serious reservations about some of the ways they lived (that they cook all the food in aluminum pots is rather scary), made some friends, had some fun, and got to know some of the beauties of Nicaragua.

There are still questions, both big and trivial, that puzzle me—I can live without hot showers, but do dishes get clean when washed in cold water? Is shampoo as effective? What little items am I going to kick myself for not taking with me on the move? How tough or painful might the lessons be when I don’t think correctly about living in a new to me, third-world, country? How much will out-of-country resident taxes eat into the small pensions I plan to live on? Will I really be able to establish some form of supplementary income through writing/editing or will I actually have to be very, very frugal for several years? Will I be able to make real friends in my new country and have more fun than in my overly busy California working life? Can I rise to the challenge of cooking everything from scratch, including vegetables I’ve never seen before? Can I avoid catching dengue fever—the thing that possibly scares me the most about living in the tropics?

Today, I’m excited about planning the move and getting the ground-work done, even though it’s a ton of work. What moving to Nicaragua for retirement represents to me is the freedom to live differently, without working so hard, and to make new discoveries not only about my new country and its people, but about myself. Maybe it’s a chance to reinvent myself, or at least, get a fresh start, and chart a genuinely new course through life. I anticipate 20-30 years in retirement and now I know that I can do this—even if parts of it bring me to my creaky knees at times. I will get up, dust myself off, ask for help when I need to, and carry on. I suspect that Nicaragua, rather than wowing me from the get-go, will sneak up on me, soak into me, and leave me richer, wiser, and more joyful than I was when we first met. 

Cathedral View from Rooftop of Casa San Francisco

Cathedral View from Rooftop of Casa San Francisco

7 Responses to What Did I Learn? Investigating Retirement as an Expat in Nicaragua

  1. Karen Mize says:

    Claire, after reading this piece I was left with the impression you are going to go for it and make the move to Nicaragua, I have to say “I hope so!”. I found the same thing when we went the first time. After spending only 2 weeks in the country there were so many things about the it we loved but I felt zero desire to return once we left. But once we were home and still in contact with some friend we had made during our trip I found myself longing to go back and warming up to the idea of calling it home. I am so thankful for the friends who kept my heart there while my mind had to “work it out”. Yes, it is very different from the USA, but that is the best part in my opinion. We will be starting our adventure in January with a permanent move, we hope to see you there!

  2. Deborah Goehring says:

    Claire, I hope you don’t mind if I share your article on my blog because your introspective questions about retiring abroad are exactly what new retirees need to hear and ask themselves. This is a marvelous post…real and thought provoking! Although Nicaragua grabbed us from the beginning ( actually, it was the Nicaraguan people that won us over), we learned quickly to lower the bar on our unrealistic expectations. You are one step ahead of us by considering all the possibilities that could make or break your move to Nicaragua.
    I have no doubts that you will be happy and successful living in Nicaragua because you have learned to ask the right questions.
    I chuckled at your question,” Do dishes get clean in cold water?” I had to Google the answer because I got tired of heating water on the stove 3 times a day to wash my dirty dishes. And the answer is, “Yes.” I still use hot water for my very greasy dishes, simply because hot water is the only thing that cuts the grease effectively. In fact, Google has become one of my most frequent companions in Nicaragua. I Google everyday. I heard it helps to ward off Alzheimer’s, too. 🙂
    Please, please continue to write and post. I thoroughly enjoy reading your thoughtful musings. I hope to see you soon. Hugs from the land that is soaking into you bit by bit. Once you are thoroughly soaked, you’ll never be the same.

    • bipolaroid says:

      Deb, I would be honored to have this piece on your blog! You have been an inspiration to me on this journey to retirement “further south”. I chuckled myself at your “I Google every day” wondering what someone would think it meant who had never heard of the internet, such as my long-deceased parents!

  3. Martin Nelson says:

    My take and reflections are a bit different. I chose not to retire in Granada or San Juan, but rather on the Tola Penninsula at Hacienda Iguana. Here the beach vendors haven’t arrived, there’s not crime in our very protected communities. And the real Nicaragua is nearby for those who venture out of the gates. I’ve over 3000 Linkedin Nicaragua Face-to-Face contacts, mostly in Managua. This is where I get to connect with the extraordinary Nicaraguan culture.

  4. Michael Andrade says:

    OMG you sound so clueless and untraveled. Is shampoo going to work in cold water? The sidewalk is uneven? Lawd have mercy.

  5. Awesome site you have here but I was wondering if you knew of any community forums that cover the same topics discussed here?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get suggestions from
    other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have
    any suggestions, please let me know. Cheers!

    • Claire says:

      There are a lot of a Facebook pages for expats and would-be expats: you can search “Expats” and the town, country or region you’re interested in to find them. I think there are all sorts of blogs about retiring overseas and websites like International Living and Live and Invest Overseas (Kathleen Peddicord) are starting points for exploring these questions, although they tend to present the more glossy, flawless perspectives on various places. Good luck finding more information for yourself!

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