article from August 29, 2011
by Julie R Butler
The blog, Monday (or something) is an ingeniously useful resource for anyone who is trying to make plans for relocation to Central America. There, you will find detailed outlines of expat destinations, from the point of view of Cory and “The Girlfriend” as they conduct an experiment in renting a place to stay for about one month while trying to keep within a set budget in different locations. Along with observations geared toward understanding the ins and outs of living in these places, you will find lovely photos as well as amazingly detailed spreadsheets of all costs incurred during their stays in towns and cities all over the region. The following is a short interview I conducted with Cory.
JRB: The idea of sharing the information that you are gathering– cost of living based on longer term rental, as well as conditions such as infrastructure, available activities, crime, and a feel for what the expat communities are like– is just marvelous. Was the blog a part of your original exploratory travel plan, or did it come up as you were traveling?
CORY: It was part of our original plan. I have a bit of history vacationing and backpacking in Latin America and have soft plans to retire here. As I was researching cost of living info I found a lot of people with the same question (Do I have enough money?) and very few answers. I ran across PaddyinBA who put up tables of prices with kind of a "basket of goods" approach and that got me thinking, why not a full on "month in the life" approach instead?
The Girlfriend has traveled in South America with me, but never Central, so I already had a list of places that I wanted to show her. If we combined that with a bit of structured fact finding and kept our expenses low we could just barely justify the spending. So we came up with a loose list of towns and regions to investigate, put together a pack list and set out.
The blog is a combination of my notes (costs and observations), a weekly update that I had been sending out, off and on, for years to friends and family and pictures along the way. I realized early on that writing my notes for strangers was the best way to make sure they were reasonably comprehensive. Otherwise there's just too much temptation to say "I'm sure I'll remember this forever", which is so seldom true. We're always surprised to go back and see what our rent was in a previous city, even if it was only a few months ago.
JRB: What is it that draws you to Central America other than the low cost of living?
CORY: Proximity, for one. Both The Girlfriend and I want to be close to our parents back in The States while we still have them.
The diversity of terrain is wonderful, too. In The US we could drive for 9 hours and still be in the Midwest. In Panama, for instance, we're in the Caribbean now and the Pacific is about 4 hours by car. There are places in this country where you can see both coasts from the same spot. In between are highland mountains (we just spent 2 months in Boquete, which is a pleasant highland climate with fog and evergreens). I have to hop planes in the states to see any one of those, let alone all three. I prefer living without a car so the high availability of public transportation down here is a big plus. I don't even have to plan a trip; I can usually just show up at the bus station and trust that within an hour a bus will leave going my way, and that's not just local transit but regional and international.
And I won't try to encapsulate my impressions of a Central American approach to life or philosophy or anything, but let's just say that, assuming one exists, I'm a fan.
JRB: Do you think that it is important for people who are considering moving to the places you are checking out (in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, so far) to speak some amount of Spanish, or will they do fine without it?
CORY: Some places, like Honduras's Bay Islands and all of Belize, are mostly English speaking. Other places, like Esteli, Nicaragua are almost entirely Spanish. But if you're going to learn Spanish formally and have your eye on the region, then you're probably going to be taking those classes down here anyway.
For years I took trips in Nicaragua and Panama with absolutely no Spanish; I had a note in my wallet that ordered me a rum and coke, and that was it. It's frustrating and sometimes terrifying and you really have to make do with what you get, like in restaurants, but it's doable. My Spanish is still terrible. For example, I can only speak in the present tense.
JRB: When you interact with expats in different places, are you able to connect with people who have a range of experiences?
CORY: Yeah, the expats are a big part of the draw for me. The further you get out, the more interesting the stories are. There are some places where large organization are doing everything they can to funnel expats into specific towns, but there are other places where you really have to mean to end up there. I'm in Bocas del Toro [Panama] now, which is an interesting mix of both.
JRB: Do you feel that, in general, the expat communities are helpful and supportive?
CORY: Absolutely. Some places people are a little more guarded, usually in towns with more tourist traffic. But after they've seen you around for a couple of weeks or so they warm up to you, realizing that you're not just on vacation. Other places you're part of the family from day one. Some have been around so long they don't remember what it was like to adjust. They're great for stories and social info. Others have only been in town for 2 years and empathize with your practical concerns (cheap eats? laundry?) immediately. Some get really excited about the spreadsheets that I'm putting together, too, because they moved directly to a specific Central American town and are now thinking about looking elsewhere (this is especially true of expats in Costa Rica these days, due to price increases).
JRB: Many thanks to Cory and The Girlfriend for going out there, paying it forward, and offering up so much insight here in this interview and on Monday (or Something). It leaves me wondering what the connection is between people whose highest priority is getting drunk and the desire to help out one’s fellow expat by posting cost spreadsheets on the Internet... Hmmm.
Julie R Butler is a writer, journalist, editor, and author of several books, including Nine Months in Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). She is a contributor to Speakout at Truthout.org, and her current blog is Connectively Speaking.email: julierbutler [at] yahoo [dot] com, Twitter: @JulieRButler