Month: November 2013

Visiting Nicaragua

Or, Never Again

When Mike said that he wanted to add the country of Nicaragua to our list of countries to explore I had my misgivings.  Turns out I was right. We toured the cities of Estelí, Cerro Negro, Granada, Leon, Masaya, Ometepe, Matagalpa and San Juan del Sur.

Upon landing in Managua the staff at the hotel wouldn’t let us leave the hotel without an escort.  We said we were only going to walk a few blocks away to the cinema and they told us that even that would not be a safe thing to do.  It was broad daylight.  That was enough for us.  We never left the hotel.

Our only picture of Managua is of the water cooler in the hotel lobby.

Our only picture of Managua is of the water cooler in the hotel lobby. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince



The following morning we were picked up for a seven day escorted tour of the country.  Our driver and our tour guide were both friendly and wonderful people.  Even they however gave us warnings about places to go and what time to be back inside our room.  Sitting in a café one day looking at one of the countries most famous beaches I remarked how empty it was.  We were then told that the water was actually polluted with sewage and locals won’t use it.  Lots of expats build expensive homes on this waterfront and I wouldn’t go near it with a ten foot pole.

One of the safe beaches frequented by locals

One of the safe beaches frequented by locals © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

Since we were exploring Nicaragua for 21 days we had rented a car for the last 14 days of our trip.  Bus travel in Nicaragua is spotty at best so it was deemed safer by our tour operator to do our own driving.  We were also headed to some places that would have been nearly impossible to find or get to without having our own vehicle such as the coffee finca Selva Negra in Matagalpa.  Our time in Selva Negra is well documented and we wrote our first children’s book about our time there.  This truly was an oasis in the middle of a no man’s land.

We stayed for four nights in Leon using it as our base.  The wonderful women at the hostel we stayed at insisted that Mike park the rental car behind the locked gates at night (and before dark) so that it would be safe.  In Granada we watched people eating out of garbage cans because they were starving.  One of the hardest things to watch was people standing around and watching other people eating and when those people got up to leave those who were watching would swoop in before someone else got to the plate and take the uneaten food to have something to eat.

In Granada we also met an expat who married a local woman.  He said he hardly ever leaves his home because one day he dared to ride his bike outside the safety zone and he said he knew he had ridden too far that day and before he could turn around he was pounced on and they took his bike, his camera and his pride.  They hurt him only a little bit.  He said he will never do it again.

We watched in first fascination and then in horror as people would do tricks or cartwheels or other dangerous routines at red lights.  While people were waiting for the lights to change those desperate for money would do something to earn a coin or two.  And then of course there were those who would blatantly walk up to your car windshield to wash it to earn money.  These people are at every street corner and to get them to stop you simply turn your windshield wipers on and they go away.

Sound harsh to you?  Three weeks of people begging for money, of seeing the filth and trash thrown in the streets and the constant car horn honking will turn even the most civilized person into a hardened tourist.  I asked Mike to get me out of Nicaragua.

The people we met and dealt with at hotels and restaurants were warm and friendly.  This fact however does not make up for the constant bombardment of begging that we were subjected too.  If the leader of Nicaragua would spend more on his people instead of wasting money putting airstrips on Ometepe Island or in building a canal to rival Panama’s perhaps his people would not be starving in the streets, or doing dangerous things at red lights or even in eating other people’s leftovers.

They are putting in an airstrip on this beautiful island so that tourists can get to the island faster.  They are plowing up beautiful rainforests to do it.

They are putting in an airstrip on this beautiful island so that tourists can get to the island faster. They are plowing up beautiful rainforests to do it. © Photo by Florence Ricchiazzi Lince

If you wish to see the country of Nicaragua take every precaution imaginable and stay safe.  Stay with an escort and keep on the beaten path.  Our paths will not cross in Nicaragua.  Been there, done that.

Florence Lince


Where Allah Wept

In 1992 fifty thousand Muslims fled to a small town called Srebrenica in the region today known as the Republika of Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They came from cities all over the region.  They came because the United Nations said this was a safe place for them.  They were told to turn in their guns once they arrived because they would not need them for protection, so they did.

They lived without water, electricity, food and a purpose.  They had brought themselves to a concentration camp with nowhere to go and nowhere to hide.

From 1992 to July 1995 they lived this way. In the mountains and regions around them they could hear the bombs and the war playing out where the region of the world once known as Yugoslavia was being torn into eight new countries; Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

These 50,000 Muslims were not new to this area.  Many of them had lived peacefully, and for generations, in the towns and cities they had fled from.  Being Muslim however they did not fight and being out of harm’s way was seen as a good thing.

There was in the area of Srebrenica a United Nations detachment.  The first UN peacekeepers came from Canada.  They were replaced by a detachment from the Netherlands.  They occupied a vast expanse of land and did little more than parade ground maneuvers in their occupied space. They were viewed as a peaceful presence, a protective presence to those who were living here.  With the world’s focus on the war taking place and new countries emerging few outside of this area knew of the treatment these people were enduring.  Or of what was to come.

With the war for Bosnian independence coming to an end, on July 10th word began to spread in Srebrenica that perhaps it was time for the people to seek shelter elsewhere.

It was then too late.

On July 11, 1995 twenty-five thousand people came to the Dutch United Nations site to seek shelter.  Only 5,000 were admitted.  Twenty thousand men, women and children were left outside to fend for themselves.  It was then that the Serbian Army under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic, under orders from Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, came to begin the genocide at Srebrenica.  They were killed for simply being Muslim.  By July 14th, the killing was complete. The Dutch never fired one bullet to defend or protect any of the fifty thousand.

As of today more than 8000 bodies have been found, mostly Muslim boys and men.  However mass graves are still being found all over this war-torn area which was once Yugoslavia and no one is sure what the final death total will be.

The list of the cities where those who came seeking shelter came from

The list of the cities where those who came seeking shelter came from

Because there are so many bodies still to be positively identified and with so many burials taking place it was decided to hold one annual burial. No other date would have meant as much so these burials take place every July 11th.

This year 497 more people were buried in the graveyard in Srebrenica.

A commemorative wall where the names are placed of those who were murdered

A commemorative wall where the names are placed of those who were murdered

This story was recounted to us by a young man named Hasam.  Hasam lived in the concentration camp of Srebrenica for four years with his Mother, Father and two brothers.  He was not saved by the UN or by any other outside faction.  He escaped and walked for over five days into the woods, away from the ‘safe city’ of Tuzla that the Bosnian Serbs told the over 2500 men and boys to walk towards, but where an ambush awaited.  He never saw his father or oldest brother again. His mother lives not to far from the city of Srebrenica.  His younger brother is also alive and well.

Mike with Hasam who survived the genocide. Mike's Dad was a prisoner of war who survived the Bataan Death March. This photo was important for them both.

Mike with Hasam who survived the genocide. Mike’s Dad was a prisoner of war who survived the Bataan Death March. This photo was important for them both.

A wide range of emotions swept over me as I walked the cemetery in Srebrenica and looked upon all these graves.  Another set of emotions erupted when I walked the grounds of the Dutch enclave and saw fenced in areas and buildings that could have easily held all that sought shelter.  No one needed to have died that day or any other day.  A rage boiled inside to see the blood stained walls were some of the people were marched and then killed.  And I shed a lot of tears. Tears of revolt for those who did the killing, tears for those who died, and tears for those who were left alive to live with the pain and the memories of those days.

I do not understand hate such as this.  I hope I never do.

Florence Lince

Look, up in the Sky It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane

Or Where Did That Hang Glider Come From…

During our six week exploration of Chile we went as far south as Ushuaia (the last inhabited city on the continent) and as far north as Iquique.  Iquique is a city that lies past the Atacama Desert in the northern region of the country.  As we drove through the desert trying to make Iquique before nightfall I honestly thought we were driving through the Planet Hoth from the Star Wars trilogy, it was such a desolate and sand filled place and the workers working in the mines were dressed in outfits to deal with the blowing sand that look like they came right out of the movies.

As Mike got closer to the turn off for Iquique I saw a hang glider flying above us.   One had to wonder where he came from when all around us was nothing but sand.  As Mike crested the hill leading into Iquique suddenly the coast line of Chile was before us and we were looking at palm trees and beaches; a real oasis in the middle of the desert.

Iquique looks like the state of Hawaii.  There is a long beach that goes on forever.  There are palm trees and cool ocean breezes which are a constant temperature.  It truly was a paradise.

Iquique, as is most of Chile, is family centric. This beach front goes on for over a mile.

Iquique, as is most of Chile, is family centric. This beach front goes on for over a mile.

Exercise equipment is available on the beach for everyone to use.

Exercise equipment is available on the beach for everyone to use

They have a water park for the kids - free to run and play in

They have a water park for the kids – free to run and play in

They have a petting zoo on the beach filled with all the indigenous animals of the region.

They have a petting zoo on the beach filled with all the indigenous animals of the region

They had a wild animal section filled with koi and turtles and crocodiles

They had a wild animal section filled with koi and turtles and crocodiles

People are always asking Mike and me if we have a favorite city that we would return too to live.  We already know what the other is thinking.  For Mike it would be Pucon (located in southern Chile in the Lakes District), and for me it would be Iquique.  At least we picked the same country…

Florence Lince

Tango the Night Away

In Montevideo, Uruguay

Travel to Latin America is hot.  All of the countries on this continent are being discovered by tourists, many for the first time.  In 2011 we spent 21 days exploring the beautiful country of Uruguay.

Cecilia Regules Viajes helped me plan our trip. Cecilia lives and works in Montevideo.  Lots of people sell travel to places they have never been. Since I used to sell travel I always look for a local agent to take care of my travel needs.  This cuts out the middle man and is usually cheaper since the agents who do not create these trips charge a service fee to do so.  Cecilia has been in business since 1981 and she took great care of us.  We went to the cities of Mercedes, Fray Bentos, Salto, Cabo Polonio, Colonial del Sacramento, Punta del Este and of course Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay.

Because we were such good clients and open to going places that others might have found too rustic Cecilia offered to take us one night to a club where mostly locals go. Since Mike and I always look for these opportunities we jumped at the chance to go with her.  We meet Cecilia at 10:00pm at her office on a Saturday night and we walked to the building known as the Mercado de Los Artesanos.  The ground floor of this building is a huge souvenir shop selling items from all over Uruguay.  The magic happens on the second floor.

You can take Tango lessons in the restaurant

You can take Tango lessons in the restaurant

Uruguay is one of those Latin American countries where they eat dinner late.  It is normal to see people eating dinner at 10:00 or 11:00pm.  When the shop on the first floor closes at 9:00pm the restaurant upstairs begins to cook, which is why so many tourists do not know about it.  You can take tango lessons here and there is even a market to buy fresh cut meats and cheeses.  The restaurants serve local Uruguayan food but people are not coming here for the food, they are coming for the floor show.  Around 11:00pm a singer takes the stage and he sings a couple of favorite songs.  He then walks from table to table and asks everyone where they are from and a round of applause ensues when you say you are from someplace outside of Uruguay.  This night there are a lot of people from Argentina and Germany in the audience.  Since the emcee is just getting warmed up this becomes open mike time and everyone and anyone can get up to sing or perform.  There are a few takers and several of them have wonderful singing voices.  Sitting and eating good food, drinking good wine, having wonderful company and enjoying the show makes the time fly by and soon it is close to 2:00am and no one is leaving, these Uruguayo really know how to party!

The Mercado de Los Artesanos is not in the best section of town and if you plan to have dinner and attend the show make sure to take a taxi so you are not wandering around the city streets at such a late hour.  Montevideo is pretty safe during the day but nighttime can be another matter.

The people of Uruguay are incredibly warm and friendly.  They are also one of the most progressive Latin American countries we visited.  They have legalized marijuana, abortions and gay marriage.

Uruguay should be on everyone’s list of places to visit and I’m glad it was one of the countries we explored.  Mike and I both agree that the cities of Mercedes and Fray Bentos are still on our list of places to perhaps live one day.  The country of Uruguay reminds me of the old saying, “special things come in small packages”.

Cecilia and Mike enjoying good food, good wine and good company

Cecilia and Mike enjoying good food, good wine and good company

Florence Lince

Family, Family Everywhere

Or Fancy Meeting You Here

When I first met my husband Mike in 2005 I jokingly told him that I have family everywhere.  You see I am Italian and I do come from an incredibly large family.  I always thought everyone grew up with that many cousins.

The first generation of my family to be born here were my grandparents.  My great-grandparents were from Sicily.  They had 10 children.  Those 10 turned around and gave them 24 grand-children, and you see where this is going.

My first Thanksgiving with Mike I had 45 people for dinner.  He had to fly in from Seattle to my home in Las Vegas four days before Thanksgiving to help me cook all the food and the pies.  He was overwhelmed but this was just how I grew up.

Before we headed for Argentina in 2011 I had found out that, low and behold, I really did have family everywhere.  There are about 100 family members living in cities throughout Argentina and I connected via facebook with my cousin Claudia in Cordoba.  She speaks pretty good English.

We chatted back and forth and we gave her our itinerary for our time in Argentina and what cities we would be in and what dates.  Then I lost contact with her and didn’t hear back.

Mike and I left on our four month exploration of Latin America in June of that year.  When we made it to Argentina I simply sent Claudia one last message letting here know that we were in the country and again what our dates were and where we were going.

At 6:00am one beautiful day while we were getting ready to explore the city of Mendoza, Argentina the front desk called our room and told me that I had company.  Being it was 6:00am and I was in a foreign country I thought the front bellman had gone daft.  After asking me again if I was Florence Ricchiazzi Lince he confirmed that I indeed did have company.  Walking to the lobby the morning fog lifted and the only person I could even fathom was waiting for me was Claudia.  And there she was, in the lobby, with her husband and three of her children!  After seeing my note that we were in town they had driven over 6 hours to get from their home in Cordoba to Mendoza to spend the day with us. It was the first time we had ever met but we talked and talked and talked the day away.  What an incredibly warm and sweet family.  We had breakfast together and then spent the day at the Mendoza Zoo.  The kids had a wonderful time and by the end of the day they were calling Mike Uncle.  Our day in Mendoza, with family, is still one of the memories we cherish most from our many travels.

Me and my cousin Claudia. Can you tell we are related?

Me and my cousin Claudia. Can you tell we are related?

By the end of the day he was Uncle Mike!

By the end of the day he was Uncle Mike!

A family reunion in Argentina

A family reunion in Argentina

Mike no longer doubts me when I say I have family everywhere.  He just smiles and shakes his head and waits for the next 6:00am call.

Florence Lince

There’s no place like home…

I just don’t know where that is exactly

I was born in Buffalo, NY.  I escaped when I was 18.  That’s a joke based on years of dealing with harsh winter weather.  Buffalo is a beautiful city with a great history and warm people.  And the food!  I think what makes people laugh is that when they tell me that they are going to Buffalo we recount all the places they need to visit to eat some of the best food in the US.  Yes, they call that Buffalo Proud.

I moved from Buffalo, to Glendale, CA in 1978.  I stayed in CA until 2005.  I had homes and family in Nevada by then so I was going between the two states.  In 2005 I met my husband Mike (on a singles cruise to Alaska) and he was living in Washington State.  In December of 2005 I had sold both of my homes (one in Nevada and one in CA) to be with Mike full time in WA.  We made Olympia our home.  It was a beautiful little city and is actually the capital of WA.  I enjoyed my time in Olympia very much.  They have an awesome farmers market and they host the yearly northwest a cappella competition which Mike and I attended.

In 2007 Mike wanted a career change and we moved to Redmond, Oregon.  It was a nice little town with a very homey and comfortable environment.  We lasted until 2008 when Mike took a better job based in Salem, Oregon.  I really liked Salem.  It has a great university town feel and is again the capital city of the state.  We lived across from the weekly farmers market and the city was central to all things cultural.  What was hardest on me was the white supremacist feelings in the neighborhood and with my clearly ethnic looks I never felt safe unless Mike was around.  I had never lived in an area of the US with such a feeling and while I was angry as hell about this situation it also made me incredibly sad that in this day and age stupidity and bigotry ruled the day.

By 2010 I had had enough of cold weather and we moved to Las Vegas.  Now, you can move to Vegas on two conditions.  One, that you do not like to gamble and two that you like it warm.  Mike and I do not gamble.  In fact in the two years we lived in Vegas Mike never stepped into a casino unless he was going to a buffet to eat.  Not too many people can do that in Vegas.  The second factor, liking it warm, really takes a lot of learning.  It’s not always scorching hot in Vegas, they do get some cool evenings.  It’s just that having it warm outside all the time is exhausting, so you have to learn to adjust.  Mike did a great job of it.  The real problem with Vegas is that making friends is really hard.  The attitudes of people in Vegas are just not geared towards anyone trusting someone else.  They are so used to people scamming them or cheating them that they don’t trust.  When Mike decided in 2011 that he had enough of the working life and wanted to retire I wasn’t all that upset over it and we looked forward to the next adventure.

I guess you can say I’m lucky since I have always enjoyed every place I have lived.  I can find something good about every place.  I just have never felt that I belonged in any of these places long term and no place has ever felt like home to me.  I have always had a bit of the wanderlust that people talk about.  Most people in my family stopped asking me “how are you” ages ago, they learned to ask, “where are you now”.  As Mike and I keep moving from country to country we have met some great new friends and have lived in some wonderful countries, but home?  I’m not sure what that is exactly.  If home is a place where I feel comfortable and happy and have everything I need then I guess every place we’ve been is home to me.  I think I’m lucky in this regard.  It helps me to want to keep traveling and seeing new places.  Maybe some day I’ll be a homey and have roots and one place to call home.  Until then I’ll just make the world my home…

Florence Lince

The Butterflies of Cuernavaca

Living in Mexico was sort of an afterthought.  It really wasn’t on our list of countries to live in, it just sort of happened.  We needed a place to live after our exodus from Panama and we needed it quickly.  We had already been in Latin America for two years exploring through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina and we wanted to live someplace new.  We had met some people on a cruise who were from a town called Cuernavaca so we decided to investigate what it had to offer.

Cuernavaca is called the “City of Eternal Spring”, which we never actually saw.  Instead we were surrounded by more butterflies than I have ever seen in the wild in my life.  Our yard was filled with them in every shape, size and color.  I never knew that butterflies came in so many colors.  We found out that Cuernavaca annually has thousands of butterflies that descend on it so we had come at the right time of year.

As is normal for us we had no car while living there and it is not easy to get around.  Yes, they have buses and taxis that were cheap enough but the town is built on hills and while it was great exercise, not everything was paved so the simple task of walking to the grocery store was a full exercise event.

We met and rented a flat from not only a local but also a fellow expat.  Professor James Horn taught about Latin American studies at Brockport University well before it was fashionable to do so.  Professor Horn had retired to Cuernavaca some years before and he rents out the floors of his house to fellow travelers.  We were lucky that he had an available flat and we left for Mexico.  Professor Horn is also a fine dining patron and a Mexican wine connoisseur so we were invited to go to some of Cuernavaca’s best restaurants on a weekly basis – thank you Jim.

Contrary to what the news media will report, we never once felt unsafe in Mexico.  Now, we didn’t do anything stupid like buying or dealing drugs or taking part in prostitution or using a gun, and we were always home by dark but we never once heard a gunshot, and we always felt safe.

We did a lot of touring around this section of Mexico during our 5 months in the country and we loved it all with Mexico City, Taxco, Teotihuacan  and Xochicalco standing out for me with some great memories.

The people of Mexico were warm and friendly.  When you tell a local that you are living in their country the look of first, surprise, and then pride, that shines through is worth the price of a passport.  The people of Cuernavaca were helpful in sharing with us the best places to eat and visit.  It is also incredibly helpful that my husband speaks Spanish since in some of the smaller towns there wasn’t a word of English to be heard.  This is after all their country so speaking Spanish, or at least understanding it, is the way to go.

We lived incredibly well while in Mexico and we would have no hesitation in promoting its charms, or its people.  Viva Mexico!

                                                                                                Florence Lince

Our time in Perth, no not that one, the one in Scotland

We had every intention when landing in Scotland of being here six months.  We had done a lot of extensive research on places to live, costs of living, and so on before we came there. Unfortunately things didn’t turn out the way we had been told they would, or how we wanted.

I had been online well before we landed chatting with realtors and letting agencies.   I had appointments lined up in Perth with agencies and house sharing folks.  Most of the apartments I found before we landed were around the 400 pound or less a month range and we knew that this was acceptable for us as costs went.  The reality upon landing however was somewhat harsher.  Even though I had communicated for months that we were coming all of a sudden people didn’t want to rent to us as expats.  They had forgotten what our requirements for a place to let were (one bedroom fully furnished with internet).  Since we weren’t asking for the moon we thought our request would be simple.

We went from letting agent to letting agent and however much you see it on TV where they work with an expat and show you from place to place with ease that is not the case.  We were told in office after office that they simply did not have anything to show us and they didn’t seem all that interested in renting to expats.

We thought we had hit the mother lode when one agent in a local agency in Perth said she remembered that a two bedroom unit, renting for 495 pounds a month, fully furnished was going to come on the market, but we had to wait a month’s time to get into it.  Being resourceful and desperate, we decided to see the apartment anyway.  We did, thought it would suit us just fine and left to explore other parts of Scotland for the month we had to wait to get into the apartment.

We toured Perth, Kinross, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and then Birmingham staying for a week in each city while we waited.  To say we enjoyed our tours of each city would not be an understatement.  Scotland has beautiful vistas and lush and green valleys and there was much to see and do.  Most of which Mike wrote about on his blog.

Our fateful day arrived and pulling our last two suitcases through Perth to the letting agency we found that they forgot to tell us one little piece of information; that the rent needed to be paid in advance.  You see we didn’t have a credit history in Scotland and hence they decided that since they couldn’t do a proper credit check we needed to pay the rent in advance before we were given the keys.  We toddled off to the local bank and there found out that they would not wire money from our bank in the US (even though it was the same international bank).  That should have been our first clue that things were not going to work out well in the end.

A month after taking the unit we received in the mail a bill from the council tax folks for the whopping sum of 900 pounds.  This equates to roughly $1200 USD.  This bill is for the taxes on the property and the water bill.  Here in the UK (and Scotland is still a part of the UK) the tenants pay the council tax on a rental.  To get a 900 pound bill for taxes for a place we did not own was just outside the realm of reality so we marched down to the letting agency who said, oops, didn’t we tell you that you had to pay that too?  Needless to say we were not happy and never in a million years would I suggest anyone deal with this agency again.  So this little two bedroom apartment where the rent was 495 pounds is in reality 650 pounds a month, and its way overpriced.  Because this is a socialist government the taxes collected pay for the free bus rides seniors get, medical care for the locals and other benefits, none of which we could use as expats, so why were we required to pay it?

Now to be fair and in answer to why did we rent this place it is the unit on the top floor of a four story building.  There are no common walls between us and any other apartment in the area and the location is terrific as it is in the city center of old Perth.  It is ideal if you want to walk everywhere and have access to shops and buses and even coffee shops.  What was not ideal was that this apartment was now costing us the equivalent of living in the sunnier state of CA in the US and we had no TV, no internet connection and we were paying the utilities.  To say we felt like we had been cheated would be putting it mildly.

We tried to chat with the owner, and you guessed it, once she had our hard earned cash she certainly wasn’t going to let that go.  She said the bank didn’t allow money to flow in reverse and there was nothing she could do.  Really?  I wouldn’t let anyone rent from her either.

What have we learned?  Never give anyone six months rent in cash, ask exhaustive questions about the rental and the costs that go with it and be prepared to leave the country in question if you don’t get the answers you want.  In hind site, and what other kind is there really in this situation, when we were told that we would have to wait a month for a place to live, it would have been better to have left the country in question immediately.  And that is what we will do in the future.  If we get someplace and things are just not as they were told to us or they don’t seem to be lining up correctly we’ll leave.  And it is that easy.  This is a great big world and sooner or later someone will want to rent to an expat and treat them fairly.  We just didn’t find that to be the case in Scotland.

                                                                                                            Florence Lince