Living in Granada Nicaragua
It was bound to happen. At some point, the elegant city of Granada would be discovered by a tourist trade, fascinated by the early colonial architecture settled tranquilly by the fitful waters of Cocibolca, with the dormant volcano, Mombacho, rearing triumphantly a few miles away. The idea of living in Granada would also attract a residency of expats and retirees, searching for their paradise, or just an escape from the political pressure and economic instability of their native countries.
The freshly painted buildings gleam next to the domed cathedral, the central plaza, the shaded park, the antique cannons reminding the visitor of an era of pirates and land struggles.
The streets seem nearly deserted. Late model cars line up in front of sheltering canopies, supported by equally freshly painted pillars, while a few pedestrians wander back from the market, woven shopping bags clinging to their arms.
Living in Granada: The Expat’s World
Inside the sedate buildings is a vigorous lifestyle. The post-preppie generation has moved in with coffee shops, health food stores, arts and crafts displays, sports equipment and gyms. As the day winds down, they come out to cluster around cafes and restaurants, with tables and chairs spilling out the doors and into the streets. They chatter about philosophy and politics, rising prices, places they’ve been and haven’t been yet, and sometimes, nothing at all.
Away from the decidedly middle to upper class central, there is a different life, a different beat. Traffic edges bumper to bumper, on rain-eroded pavement, competing with ox-carts, bicycles, and pedestrians for momentum in narrow avenues sliding by multi-colored concrete block store fronts and dwellings. Bright orange and yellow umbrellas hang over street stands loaded with hand prepared candies, freshly picked fruits and sea foods simmering in their juices. Hawkers demonstrate the wonders of plastic toys, carved bamboo flutes, incense, and religious candles.
Living in Granada is a choice between carrying your home with you, blending your expat life with dips in a private swimming pool and participation in the numerous Nicaraguan festivals, or immersing yourself completely in local culture. Typical of Central American countries, the poor set up homes in barrios and make-shift shacks next to the more affluent residents, the modern gas stations, video stores, and Internet cafes. There is no zoning committee. There is no careful separation of economic social classes offering shopping malls, theaters, and boutiques undisturbed by low-income housing.
Beyond the Hub
A walk down to the lakefront reveals a mother supervising her children on a rusting swing set. A little girl in a fluffy pink dress walks along a stone pier, bits of rock bubbling away into the dust from years of neglect. Under the banyan trees, their exposed roots bleached and twisted, a family peacefully picnics. An old man plays a xylophone, while at one end, a purple-headed parrot listens and sometimes bobs to the music.
In the evenings, the local community is alive with sound. Youths straddle their bikes like a motorcycle gang, although their ride is nothing more than a bicycle, and they’ve come to watch the show, not make trouble. The show is a set of musicians, one setting the beat with bongos, while Spanish guitars and trombones pick up the melody. A circle is cleared within the crowd, and four young boys demonstrate their break-dancing skills. The jugglers appear, one tossing around fire brands, another machetes, and yet a third, popping crystal balls from his arm muscles.
The town, so quiet, so unnoticed just a few years ago, now contains a modern supermarket. While expats fill their carts with favorite products from home, and examine the fresh produce, the locals walk through the aisles in awe. They remove a few boxes of crackers and cookies, shake them and sniff. Their fingers rove over the jars of spaghetti sauce, prepared Texas salsa, and catsup. They finally settle on a box of cereal and a few packages of maizena.
Their own outdoor market hums with the steady flow of brisk business. Folded tee-shirts, flounced little girl dresses on hangers, sexy women’s wear, plastic shoes and sandals threaten to burst from the confines of the tented shelters, while fruits, freshly caught fish, herbs and vegetables pile up in pyramids.
The Meeting of Cultures
The stark difference between local life in Granada and the newly found prosperity of Granada central doesn’t seem to bother the international community of retirees and expats. Some brag about their ability to exist on a three hundred dollar a month budget, by living in humble apartments, sacrificing air-conditioning and surrendering their Internet privileges to monitored time at a cyber-café. Others delight in their ability to afford maid service, dining out at restaurants three times a week, and cruising to Ometepe in a boat for the classic get-away-from-it-all.
There is however, a strong sense of volunteer service within the community. Although the country has been striving for a population-wide literacy program, the average native Nicaraguan has no more than a fourth to fifth grade education. The small sub-class of educators has stretched its resources. Many of the expats are committed to improving the quality of life for the friendly people who have welcomed them into their country, and have organized schools teaching both Spanish and English skills.
There is also an internal sense of community. Within the loose network of colonial home owners, expats gone local, rural back-to-earthers, and island hoppers, is a cyber-linked information center for showing newbies the ropes. The wired-in rookie can find apartments for rent, directions to legal counsel, tips for shopping places, activities, excursions, and places to hobnob with the crowd.
Choosing Your Rhythm
With so much diversity, it would seem there isn’t much any two people agree upon. Some state that the scaled- back, simpler life of Ometepe island is better than the quickly modernizing colonial hub. Some state renting a house among the local populace is too noisy, others claim it’s the magic touch for integrating into the populace.
Living in Granada, after all, is an explosion of sight and sound. It is music flooding from the streets and drifting from the windows of early morning risers. It is a party set up with amplifiers piled one on top of another, secured with bamboo poles, a tangle of wires leading to a heavy electric cable, while piñatas swing from the trees. It is long rolling months of hot, sunny days, relieved only by a rainy season, which usually begins in May and ends in December.
The rain brings its own music, tinkling on metal roof tops, sliding down garrets, tapping against windows and thudding against tent style canopies. For some, it’s a lull in the busy tourism industry, and they restlessly wait for the drier season. For others, it’s the eagerly waited moment when their carefully cultivated gardens begin to bloom and fresh greenery unfolds on the hillsides.
Making the Adjustment
For all the differences of opinion, there are some things the community of retirees and expats are agreed on. While Granada is incredibly beautiful, you should rent a place for a few months first before deciding it’s where you want to live. Although there are over a thousand expats living in the city, the numbers are lost among two hundred thousand residents. Its flavor, its color, its vibrancy is local.
For this reason, you should also learn to speak Spanish. While there are many English speakers, especially among businesses and services, Spanish is the dominant language. Without learning it, your options are limited, as well as your understanding of the people.
Granada not only has excellent medical care (though you might have to travel to Managua for it), it is cheap, with services that undercut even those of Mexico, Costa Rica, or Panama.
Granada is the place they settled on because it’s vibrant and alive. It’s filled with opportunities. It has a vision, multi-cultural and tolerant of new ideas, new customs, and diversified lifestyles. The freedom of expression that had once characterized American democracy and has become lost in bureaucratic red tape has been found again in Granada.