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This happened today (pops, with sound). Regular readers know this song has been inescapable during my years of travel. Day 3 of my return finds Rivers Cuomo and the boys opening a new chapter of blessed rains and pretensions references to Kilimanjaro, along with which I never fail to sing.

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Price of a beer in a bar: I don’t know. I’ve been drinking rum.

Song currently stuck in my head: Destroyer (The Kinks), which is a mainstay for me in any country with cultural references to the cold war.

This wraps up the Tuesday posts for this round of travel. There’s one more Monday post from Romania (from back in early March) scheduled to go up and a few more weekday picture posts, but at this point in real time things have basically reached their conclusion. Plans at this point are unclear. If I end up anywhere interesting, you’ll be the first to know.

Do you guys know about the situation in Nicaragua right now? A ‘ctrl+f’ for ‘nicaragua’ turned up nothing on CNN, MSNBC and BBC’s extensive mainpages, so maybe it’s not getting coverage internationally. Protests broke out weeks ago and the government opened fire with live ammo and handed out rocks to supporters to throw at protesters. The images of bloodied victims and video of police supplying rocks didn’t play well on social media, nor did the live facebook stream of a journalist murdered by an unknown gunmen (which is when I first became aware of the situation).

Observers say it’s unlikely Ortega will remain as president and indications are the military may not back any efforts to maintain power.

The article makes it sound like this reaction came from out of nowhere, but I’ve been hearing ‘Soy SANdinista, no soy DANdinista’ for years, a phrase that indicates even supporters of Ortega’s party were turning on him en masse.

I know I have some expat subscribers in Nicaragua; How are things over there?

 

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“The decision to return came suddenly. Or maybe not. Maybe I’d planned it all along –subconsciously waiting for the right moment.” (with apologies to Mr. Thompson)

The end of the European leg of this trip was to be the point of reckoning for The Girlfriend and I, the time to choose where to put down roots and begin our new, exciting international life separate from the extensive travel we’d engaged in off and on for years. Circumstances unfolded in other, messier ways and I’m working through the process of this decision alone. No single consideration holds for every possible destination, but my focus is mainly within reasonable flight time of family in The Midwestern US. I’m not sure why, I have serious doubts about whether my family would ever visit me outside of The US and I suspect they’d be miserable if they did, but to provide this analysis with some focus lets start there.

This is the case against my expatriation to Central America. This is not an accurate depiction of life beyond borders, but an accurate description of only the personal considerations that make me less inclined to pursue it. This is negative by design.

I’m an outsider. I’m often told that as a straight white man I can’t possibly know what systemic oppression feels like, but I’ve explained regularly that living as a gringo in Central America provides me with more insight than you might assume. I’m a racial minority who is singled out by the police for increased scrutiny, harassment and illegal abuses of power within a system that tolerates it openly. I’m the outsider against whom the local community often conspires and discriminates. If you live in these countries long enough, you will eventually be told point blank that you’re being charged more for something ‘because you’re white’. You will be the target of crime, often violent crime like robbery, because you are perceived as having more (you probably do) and while the community will not condone those crimes against you, it may be somewhat more accepting of them. In The US we get really caught up in identifying instances of racism and intolerance, but in most of the rest of the world, including Western Europe, ‘racism’ is an accepted part of the human condition. Intolerance crosses the line and only an irritatingly vocal fringe support it, but most people accept that different groups will have some negative opinions about each other at the group level and leave it at that. Even in my favorite places I will never be part of the in group.

Heinous violent crime often finds expats based on rumor alone; I’ve heard firsthand stories from people involved in draw downs and shootouts that occurred during home invasions motivated by the false belief that there was a significant pile of cash in the house. This was often based on nothing more than rumors that the victims were planning to make some significant purchase; perhaps they’d asked a neighbor if they’d be interested in selling some land or a vehicle and someone overheard.

Originally it was the indications of community that charmed me in these places, and it still does. Seeing neighbors bring chairs out and line the streets when the sun goes down, talking and joking and playing music from their boom boxes still enamors me of these towns. But no matter how welcoming the community is, I risk always being a guest in rather than a member of it. I’m far too verbal to be comfortable only ever being partially understood.

I don’t want to look like luggage, nor do I want to do what it takes to not look like luggage. The sun is pretty much the worst enemy you can pick and every time I’m in a warmer clime I see lots of people whose conditions remind me that living in a lower UV, higher latitude home has dermatological advantages. I don’t want to deal with constant applications of sunscreen; the greasy, clothes ruining chemical slather that gets in my eyes and pores and sheets and sometimes eats plastic it comes in contact with. I don’t want to clothe every inch of flesh, like habitual nuns, the gloved/sleeved/masked women on motorcyles in Vietnam or balaclava clad boat captains in The Honduran Bay Islands. The locals here in Siem Reap are wearing flannel in literal 100 degree heat to cover their arms from the sun. And those people are genetically pigment adapted to the local level of solar energy. I face it openly in defiance of God’s own will. I end up spending a lot of my time hiding from the sun, putting off activities until its less potent and finding fruitless ways to bide the meantime. I’ve spent to much of my time biding already.

My drinking habits have changed as we (or maybe it’s just me?) have learned more about the detrimental effects. I used to think as long as you avoided cirrhosis and managed to wake up the next morning, you were doing fine. That’s not my guiding principal anymore. I really enjoy drinking and I’ve always been up front about it with my doctors and they always said my intake was fine, but the metrics were unclear to say the least. Looking at current guidelines I’m even less sure that my past habits were well advised. Its always hard to find good info without digging right into the primary research, which is difficult because the meaningful studies are meta-studies, but I think we can safely say that expat scenes generally center on unhealthy (and otherwise awesome) levels of alcohol consumption. More power to them, its one of the things I’ve enjoyed about them for the 15 or so years I’ve been regularly intermingling in them. But its not where I’m at nor where I see myself in the next 20 years. I don’t intend to live forever, but I don’t have much interest in actively undermining my health to that degree.

I’m old, if only a little. The excitement of cramped chicken buses, loud motorcycles (and cars, for that matter), loud neighbors and all night ear shattering firework eruptions wore off a while ago. The trash bothers me more now than it used to, as does the dirt, the heat, the traffic and the aggressive vendors. The more extreme of the bugs always bothered me. It feels less festive than it used to, when palm trees, sand and jungle blotted out everything else in my mind, when I observed that ‘the rhythm of a steel drum really spruces up squalor’.

There’s so much dirt (and litter). I don’t understand it, but there’s so much actual dirt all over the place. I grew up surrounded by farms and travel has made me acutely aware of the difference between dirt and soil. Soil, like everything that comes from my home town, is less likely to travel. Dirt? It’s fucking everywhere. It’s like sand. In fact, often it’s indistinguishable sand. Some of it probably is sand. It’s airborne and in a gust, say from a passing truck, it coats your face and forces your eyes shut. Leon (Nicaragua) was where I first became irritated by this. So much about the city was fantastic, but nearly all of it was set against a small scale dust bowl reenactment.

Everything I said about dirt goes for bugs as well, though I find most of them less irritating than the dirt. Living somewhere with a hard freeze at least once a year really culls the herd.

Originally I wanted to expatriate to get away from American work culture. I hated my situation and hatched a plan to escape. The more I investigated, often on-the-ground, the more I found to love. But I was comparing life away from work in Central and South America to my working life in The US, and that gave The US an insurmountable disadvantage. For several years I’ve been trying to comprehend and/or articulate why it felt like I was seeking out ‘backdrops’ rather than destinations; why my concept of the places I visited always felt a little 2 dimensional, even after living there for months. Now I know it’s because I was ‘trying on’ an idyll lifestyle when I tried on the towns. We’d make some inquiries and get some idea of what could be done to fill the time, but for me I only ever arrived in these towns because they didn’t require me to do anything. No cooking, hire a cleaner, no job, have a few beers each afternoon with the guys at the bar or some rum punch with The Girlfriend listening to music around the casita and enjoy the colors as the sun went down. They offered the opposite of the working life I hated so much, so it was easy to assume it was the life I wanted. I used to despise my work so much that I viewed every dollar in terms of what it would cost me in time to replace it and would make just about any sacrifice that meant I could earn fewer of them, gradually making my own world smaller and smaller (my friends are saints for having tolerated this, BTW, thank you all) even as I explored more and more of what the larger world has to offer. The low cost of The Developing World gave these towns an automatic, perhaps outsized allure that allowed me to downplay a lot of the drawbacks or, more significantly, ignore other lifestyle options in The US.

Recently I spent 5 largely unemployed years in a Midwestern college town and then 6 months observing a similarly responsibility-lite lifestyle in several European cities, giving me the most direct comparisons (Latin America, US, Europe, all without work or meaningful time commitments) and most useful data yet. And seeing everything on a more level playing field, one where the US wasn’t drug down by necessary associations with its work culture, further shook many of my established but eroding beliefs.

You’re right to observe that most (if not all) of the things I’ve brought up can be mitigated in one way or another, often easily and in totality. If my choice was a 40+ hour/week work culture that I despise or a simple apartment in Boquete (where there’s soil instead of dirt, long sleeves are comfortable and the expat community isn’t especially big on drinking), I’d choose Boquete before you finished the question. But that isn’t what I’m facing. The difference in costs between the developing world and some desirable smaller towns in The US with climates I enjoy could easily be offset by 20 hours/week of low impact side hustle, which would also absorb some of the ludicrously large pool of free time I’ve been maintaining for years. In fact, by the numbers, that would set me up quite well.

Besides, Mackenzie’s Dad bought a bitching new lake house. The whole gang’s going to be there and I know where her dad keeps the good scotch.

Price of beer in a bar: US$1.14 for 500ml of draft

Song currently stuck in my head: Black Coffee In Bed (Squeeze)

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(I’m here, by the way. It’s a nice room, though crowded and bustling at the moment and the internet is awful.)

Sometimes you have to get by with less physical security than you would like. I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans once with my neighbors, who had unknowingly booked a room in a particularly rough ghetto, even by that on-again, off-again (National) murder capital’s standards. Our motel room was broken into, naturally, but luckily we were gone at the time. When we got back, my neighbors insisted that we spend the night in the room anyway, even though the thieves had stolen our extra room keys. I couldn’t drive and had no where else to go, so I put a chair against the door, sat in it, and tried to get some sleep. Luckily nobody came back.

In 2007 I was passing through San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua and the two surfers I was sharing a room with insisted on leaving the door to our room open while we slept so we’d get a better breeze. I packed up my pack and slept wrapped around it like a body pillow. One of us woke up with all of our stuff the next morning.

In fact, I’ve never had anything stolen while traveling. I’m not bragging though, it will happen sooner or later. I’ve seen it happen to people I’ve traveled with quite a bit and last week it happened to The Girlfriend. We had put back several glasses of wine over at Buket Vyna, hit the street and, within minutes, I caught a small girl behind The Girlfriend with her hand buried in The Girlfriend’s day pack. It was a crowd of about 5 kids, 12 or under (or something) and a woman; seeming to match every imaginable stereotype of an Oliver Twist like group of Gypsies (“Roma”, if you prefer, though it lacks the literary allusion) right down to the setting, which was daylight hours on the old cobble stoned streets of a medieval city. They made off with a pair of freebie sunglasses and a sizable chunk of The Girlfriend’s self esteem as a seasoned traveler, even though the near worthlessness of their purloined haul is owed entirely to the planning and execution she put into organizing her bag, working ‘cheap to valuable’ in order of accessibility.

In the spirit of this example of security gone right and wrong, here are some of my tips for not getting burgled, robbed or killed. Employing all of these may seem paranoid and would often be overkill, but also keep in mind there are a lot of people out to get you.

Know where you are. Talk to front desk clerks, waitresses and other locals, especially younger women. They generally seem more aware of their security. Ask a few. Ask your front desk person or Airbnb host for a restaurant recommendation (even if you ignore it) and use that opportunity to ask about the safety of the area. Be specific and ask:

  1. Is the area safe to walk around in?
  2. Even after dark?
  3. Where around here is not safe?

Ignore other travelers who tell you things are fine; this observation has no value. Listen when they say things aren’t fine. Pay attention to the physical security of the neighborhood. Do the street level windows have bars on them? Is that the norm here or does that indicate a particularly high crime area? Are the newer windows free of bars? That’s a good sign, suggesting that the neighborhood has become better over time. Are there armed security guards in front of trivial stores or are they just around luxury stores and banks? Are there crowds? Crowds are good. Are local women walking around alone? That’s an excellent sign. Casually after dark without a quickened pace and an ongoing series of furtive glances? You’re golden.

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The lack of bars on the newer windows on the left indicate a neighborhood in transition

Secure your self and your belongings. In apartments I use a door security device, like a door jammer, to secure the place at night. There’s no telling how many copies of you keys are floating around. Unfortunately, most of these only work if the door opens inward. In Latin America there is a common type of door lock that allows you to tighten a thumb screw that renders the lock unopenable from the outside, keys be damned. I’ll rely on this if there’s no conceivable way someone can reach the lock from the outside (no window in reach, for instance).

Hide your valuables. I use decoy ‘wallets’, a small stack of invalid credit cards or similar rubber banded together with a small amount of cash. I’ll put these in easy to reach areas of the home (near a window) or my luggage (exterior pockets) as a kind of canary in the coalmine. As The Girlfriend’s recent experience demonstrates, a layered approach to security is a must. If you do make a decoy ‘wallet’, be sure the cards you use aren’t simply expired, since they’ll have the same CC number as your active replacement cards.

Be on full alert on travel days. Travel days are the worst of all possible worlds along all possible timelines when it comes to the security of your person and belongings. You have everything with you and you’re usually advertising that fact by parading some candy colored luggage on your back or wheeling alongside you. You’re overloaded, physicall and mentally. You’re likely to encounter crowds, navigate unfamiliar locations, make your way during undesirable hours and come in contact with cab drivers, who are complicit in or directly commit the vast majority of robberies that I’ve heard recounted first hand. In the worst of these situations, like an unavoidable layover in San Pedro Sula (World) murder capital contender, I’ve been known to fold US$50 or US$100 dollars up very tightly and tape it to my body under a gauze pad, simulating a bandaged wound, just so that if I found myself stripped of my belongings I’d still be able to afford to sleep indoors and have a meal while I regrouped.

In impoverished locales, consider dressing down on these days. Walk the line between “presentable” (so as to not attract unnecessary attention) and “slightly down on their luck gringo” (there are a million of these to look to for inspiration). Old, nondescript luggage really helps sell this look.

Generally I’m very wary to let my bag out of my sight, like allowing it to travel under or on top of the bus. I’ve ridden for hours with my pack on my lap, especially on haphazardly run chicken buses. I’ll make exceptions for well organized, higher end touring buses with some semblance of a bag check system. All of the well heeled locals on those buses are wary of their belongings too, so sometimes I’ll let myself follow their lead.

Travel wallets, whether over-the-neck-under-the-shirt, over-the-waistband or around-the-waist, are to thwart pickpockets not robbers. Pickpockets take what they can get, robbers take your pants. Don’t laugh, I’ve heard of this first hand on several occasions. Okay, now laugh. My point is, travel wallets are for carrying things safely but not secretly. I recommend you break up your valuables across your pack and person, utilizing more than one location in/on each. Keep your hands on things that aren’t attached to you.

The prevailing philosophy in security is that you can never secure anything entirely. You can only make yourself a less attractive target than the next person and hopefully more trouble than you or your possessions seem to be worth.

 

Price of beer in a bar: ~4.75/pint for craft brew.

Song currently stuck in my head: Welcome to the Jungle (Guns N’ Roses)

It’s come down to this.

(Not pictured: pile of spray bottles, paper towels, vacuum, sponges)

The girlfriend and I arrived in this progressive Midwestern college town in February of 2012 with the intention of staying 2 or 3 years. Last week we ended our stay after five and a half. There were several advantages to sticking around, but mostly we lingered to care for our 2 elderly cats and provide them a comfortable home in their twilight years. We were down 1 with a poor prognosis on the second this past spring when we decided not to renew our lease. Since then we’ve slowly whittled down our possessions and obligations in anticipation of last weeks departure. Our furniture was never bought to last, so most of it ended up listed for free on craigslist and being carried away relatively hassle free by people with varying levels of tweak. With a full car, a scrubbed apartment and a few addresses saved in Google Maps, we set out to cover a couple/few thousand miles in pursuit of family time before we board a Berlin Air Aluminum Tube at ORD.

I discussed my individual costs here in this thread over on the Financial Independence Subreddit.

Farewell, Bloomington, IN.

Price of beer in a bar: ~$4.75/pint of craft draft

Song currently stuck in my head: Black Betty (Ram Jam)

Ari Shaffir has a 4.5 hour podcast interviewing Rolph Potts, author of  Vagabonding (among other works). Readers of this blog will find plenty to enjoy. I think Ari keeps it relatively tame in this episode, but assume it’s neither SFW nor safe for the easily offended. Rolph mentions travel anthropology, basically looking at the social dynamics of travelers as a group and the repercussions of their interactions with locals. I had no idea this was an active field of study, but I’m fascinated. I always appreciate a deeper understanding or at least a new conceptual framework through which to view situations and activities in which I participate.

Ari previously interviewed former Black Flag frontman and asocial travel maniac Henry Rollins, who later sat down with Joe Rogan as well. The Rollins interviews really made me feel like I’m not doing enough with my life. He’s like a character out of a Gibson novel, if one of the contemporary ones.

So there’s over 10 hours of travel related audio content to help you while away the workday and/or chicken bus ride. Joe’s conversations do tend to be less focused than Ari’s (and that’s a low bar to start with).

The Girlfriend passed along this handy map of The US superimposed over a map of Europe to show how the latitudes line up. Looks like our trip will be… refreshingly brisk?

I continue to update and tinker with my pack. I’m aiming for a base weight (Total Weight – Weight of clothes I’m wearing) of 10 kg, since that’s the carry on limit for our flight. It looks like I should make it without much issue.

What might be more of an issue is political unrest in Poland, our first major stop on this trip. I’m eyeing the situation anxiously but thus far there’s been no violence, just a little ‘democracy in action’, so as of right now we plan to stay the course. Literally.