FACES OF EXPATRIATION: NICARAGUA
Expat life is often romanticized by visions of a man dressed in white linen, wearing shades and a Panama hat while smoking a cigar. Sometimes those visions even come in the form of a Carmen Sandiego-esque woman navigating through the streets of a foreign country toting an array of colorful shopping bags. Yes, of course, there are times when these images hold true and you are able to enjoy your version of the good life, but keep in mind that it’s also essential to be prepared in the event that things go awry.
Living somewhere vs. vacationing in a location is analogous to being in a relationship with someone vs. dating; in that, you have to ride out the peaks and valleys of the terrain as opposed to only enjoying the best parts. Case and point, your “good life” comes to a grinding halt when your good friend, more like extended family, comes over for dinner and is fighting back tears while sharing a story of how he and his mother had to run for cover to avoid being on the receiving end of a sniper’s bullet. A few days prior was Mother’s Day in your newly established home. And though the situation in the country has been tense for weeks, families had taken to the streets to march in solidarity with mothers who lost their children to violent acts perpetrated by the government. By his account, a march for peace turned into a space where he and many others were fortunate to escape with their lives; Mother’s Day = the bloodiest day during this period of civil unrest to date. In a matter of weeks, a country that was once ranked the safest in the region took a turn for the worse. You’re now charged with the task of knowing when “to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” as it relates to your expat living situation.
As a couple who has recently lived through making these tough choices, here are some things to consider, both immediately and in the long-term:
Access to Essentials
Food, water, medicine & gas – When the unrest started, the first order of business was to hit the market to purchase three large 5-gallon water tanks, first aid items and stock up on groceries. In case of prolonged power outage, dry goods that can be stored without refrigeration are golden. Having a gas operated stove and dryer proved to be smart decisions because it was easy to buy two reserve tanks. Even our hot tub was repurposed by refilling it with fresh water in the event that it would need to be used for bathing due to a water shortage.
These days it’s intuitive to keep our cell phones charged and with power possibly on the verge of becoming a luxury, charging up is essential. This would include any backup batteries such as morphie cases (if available) and keep in mind that car charging is an option in a pinch. If you don’t have a monthly cell phone plan, be sure to add minutes to your account. It’s also possible that cell service can be cut at any time. A precaution that we took to keep the lines of communication open was buying small walkie-talkies. When purchasing, be sure to test the range and have fresh batteries. It doesn’t hurt to know Morse Code or at least know how to send out an SOS signal using a flashlight. In addition, having a pre-arranged place to reunite with loved ones is important. A hotel or a supermarket that has security is a good example of such a location.
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but keep cash in USD and local currency! If you have small bills it’s better in the event you may need to pay for items or access. If you need to venture out with money on you, it’s better to split amounts and keep them in separate locations.
It turned out well that when house hunting, we picked a gated community and an area of town near consulate housing. These features have added another layer of safety. We created a WhatsApp group with our neighbors to keep communication fluid should a security breach arise. Crime does often escalate in times of unrest, as some individuals try to exploit the chaos for personal gain. Be guarded but gracious and try to keep a low profile. If there is an angry mob you do not want the attention to focus toward you. With all of that said, our personal experience has revealed the good nature of people in a crisis. Even though the situation did devolve into a period of looting, there were people that actually returned looted goods to shops to show that their movement for independence was about overcoming corruption and not about succumbing to it.
Connect with the embassy & monitor updates and advisories. Know the laws of the country with respect to protesting or political involvement as a foreigner. Follow the Twitter account of your country of origin. Have your passport secure along with multiple color copies as backup.
Escape Plan by Land, Air & Sea
The best option is to have a flight out of the country. In times of civil unrest, changing a flight can be easier than purchasing a new one and most airlines will waive change fees. Monitoring flight schedules of commercial airlines are prudent, as some often suspend service if the situation escalates to the point that in-country flight crew safety could be compromised. On the other hand, a departing flight will be of little use if road access is restricted around the airport. This could be a real possibility due to a wide variety of reasons. In our experience, our movements around the country were very limited due to roads being blocked as an act of civil disobedience by the people. Knowing alternate routes yourself or having access to trustworthy drivers that do, is invaluable information. In addition, filling up on gas at ¾’s of a tank is a good habit because gas shortages can also become another fact of life. If you’re not on an island and have never crossed the border by land between your new home and another country in advance, be sure to at least know the requirements for doing so. In some instances, evacuating by water may be your only option. This is one instance where the cash on hand could be helpful if you have to buy a boat captain some fuel.
In the midst of chaos, the ideal situation would be to be able to leave on your own terms if you choose to go at all. Some may choose to ride out the “relationship” with their new home country for better or worse. However, just in case that “flight” instinct kicks in and you have to leave quickly, have a “go-bag” packed that includes sentimental items & important docs.