Which Way Do We Go?! – Expat Prep

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Crossing the Great Plains, on our way back to LA, where the buffalo still roam (thanks to Ted Turner!)



People keep asking us what we are doing so I will try to catch us up! After our last farm stay in Louisiana, we wandered back towards California in order to be home for the holidays. We spent a wonderful couple of holiday months in LA with family and friends and lots and lots of food. Once the food coma wore off, we knew that we needed to buckle down and plan out 2014.

Originally, we were going to WWOOF through the Spring and Summer, making a clockwise swing – up through CA into Oregon and Washington, then over through the Great Plains and down into Colorado (there are so many amazing WWOOF farms in Colorado!). After that, the plan was to spend a few months WWOOFing in Europe. But with each new farm-stay we realized this plan wasn’t going to be in our best interests. While we were learning a great deal about how to grow food and how to develop human settlements sustainably, the bulk of what we were learning was also really specific to each region and all of it based on a temperate climate.

So much of permaculture and farming techniques have to do with the specifics of a place – its micro-climate, its ecosystem, its bugs, its soil, its lack or abundance of water, etc. We knew that the smart thing to do would be to decide where we were going to build the retreat center and then do some more WWOOFing. Not only would this provide us with education and experience for the specific region and ecosystem, it would also give us some time to get to know the place before making the commitment to buy land there. We also saw time and time again how farmers rely on their local community and connections to help get things done and developing new relationships would take time. The more the better!

I have to admit, it was kind of a bummer. We were so excited to see the rest of the country and spend some good long months overseas. We are adventurous. Some may say that we regularly throw caution to the wind. At that time, however, we were keenly aware of how significant the life changes we were making were (and still are). We knew we needed to err on the side of responsibility and prudence rather than simply seeking out what was most fun.

Even though it was hard, I value this ability intensely: to respond intelligently and appropriately to new information even when it might inconvenience you in the short run or stunt your desires. It means that we don’t have to be swept away in the gravity of what is accepted or planned – whether those ideas are ours or those of the dominant culture. We can stand up in the stream and change course if needed. I find this to be quite difficult, but also extremely rewarding and liberating.

Little did we know that this would be the first of many major course changes!

After the holidays, we found a perfect little cabin in Joshua Tree where we could be alone, do research, write and practice our Spanish. We were lucky enough to discover Lori’s Thunderbird Lodge homesteader houses. If you have a chance to stay in Joshua Tree, you must rent one of them. Each is unique and full of imagination-stirring objects.

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The first thing we did was to research countries in Central America, looking for information on political stability, crime rates, real estate pricing and immigration politics. We were also looking for places with a significant expat population. My friend Brad, who moved to Guatemala several years ago, put this way: “Making this change, you have to decide how much of a pioneer you want to be. Going into a new place where you don’t know the language or the culture, you don’t want to start out being too much of a maverick. Take it easy on yourself, at least for the first few years.” In other words, expats can be a pain in the ass, but don’t under-value them. And not just for the social benefits, but for resources and business help as well.

We were attracted to Central America, not only for its proximity to the US, but also for the low-cost of living. Our goal is to find a place where we can afford to buy and develop 15-20 acres and live without needing huge sums of money, debt-free; to find a sustainable way of living free from servitude to a bank or a corporation. But this also comes with some costs.

Clearly, in places where inequality is stark, crime is a major problem. Social unrest worsens as wealthy expats, bargain shopping for cheap vacation or retirement homes, drive the cost of land up. Eventually, the people who have lived in these places for hundreds of years sell to wealthy gringos, pricing younger generations out of the housing market. Many who have lived in the countryside are seduced to the cities to find work and a “better life”. However, in the cities, the cost of living is much higher, competition for housing and jobs is intense and often there are racial and societal prejudices, which prevent certain groups from gaining a foothold. Not to mention the decades of war, corruption and repression which have hobbled entire generations. It is a vicious cycle and I truly hope that if we become expats, we can contribute towards shifting the paradigm in a more nurturing, egalitarian and productive direction.

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Off the coast of southern Panama, La Isla Coiba used to be a penal colony. It is now the center of a national marine preserve and home to thousands of species of flora and fauna.

We had visited Panama in 2012 and found it beautiful with a nice mix of developed and undeveloped regions. That was the first country on our list, but we had already been there. I have friends in Guatemala, so I was eager to explore that option. But when I spoke to them, they admitted that violent crime in the country had risen to untenable levels. We liked Belize as an English-speaking nation, but once again violent crime seemed to be reaching peak levels. El Salvador and Honduras? Also considered very dangerous. In Costa Rica, the expat program instituted by the government in the 90’s had done a great job of attracting foreigners, but it had also driven the cost of land up to near bubble proportions and of course, petty crime has become a pernicious problem over the last few years.

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With its luxury skyscrapers, world class shopping and robust banking sector, Panama City has been called the Dubai of Latin America. Photo credit: Ayaita via CC

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Lake Nicaragua is the 2nd largest lake in the Western hemisphere (after Erie). Isla Ometepe in its center, was created by two volcanoes and hosts nearly 30,000 residents.

We were surprised to learn about Nicaragua. The second poorest country in Central America is also one of the safest. Yes, they had a 20 year civil war (partially funded by the Reagan administration – remember Oliver North and the Iran-Contra scandal?) And yes, they still have much rebuilding to do, but politically things seem stable. And with beautiful beaches on the Pacific coast, a gigantic lake and mist-enshrouded highlands, we decided to add it to our list.

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Expats are drawn to Granada as it’s arguably the most beautiful of Nicaragua’s cities with its well-preserved colonial buildings and leafy squares. Photo credit: Alberto Vega via CC

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The Amazon Rainforest is widely considered the most bio-diverse place on the planet. Ecuador is extremely proud of its Amazonian territory, even though it has been damaged by companies extracting the rich oil reserves beneath its surface. Photo credit: Ron Santiago via Flickr

For years, Ecuador has been touted as a terrific retirement spot and expat haven. Our research turned up a feasible immigration program and loads of lovely places to visit. We had no idea, but the eco-system diversity in Ecuador is quite stunning – like California on crack. You have the Galapagos Islands, gorgeous Pacific beaches, the snow capped Andes and of course, the Amazon rainforest. I also kind of liked the government’s refusal to cow-tow to US and IMF demands and also what appears to be a crime rate on the decline.

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At 10,000 ft, Quito is the world’s highest capital. The stunning city is home to nearly 3 million people.

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The highly romantic Puente Nuevo bridge spans a 390 ft deep chasm that divides the city of Ronda in southern Spain. Photo credit: judepics, CC via quora.com

JC had spent three weeks in Spain a few years ago and loved it, adding to a long list of people I know who adore it. Looking at the depressed Spanish real estate market, we found that as long as we stayed out of the main cities, we could easily afford a small farm. But as we searched and searched for immigration programs, all we found were hopeful expats confounded by the labyrinthine processes and the Golden Visa. Stretching across Europe, Golden Visa programs offer residency to those who can afford to purchase property, invest or hire employees in the country. In Spain, property purchases must total at least €500,000 and investments must top €1 million. For those without millions to invest, emigrating to Spain seems nearly impossible.

With straightforward immigration programs offered elsewhere, we painfully crossed Spain off of our list and prepared to spend April in Ecuador and Nicaragua.

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Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range provides Europe’s most southerly skiing destination. Kinda looks like Cali, no? Photo credit: Creative Commons (CC)

About Anastasia King Jaress

Anastasia is a former media producer who hit the road to sustainability in April 2013 with her husband JC and Mattie, the dog. She writes about food, community, sustainability, travel, family and the myriad questions that boggle them.

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