Expat Stories: Bolivia Has Something to Get Your Adrenaline Going Every Day (Part 1 of 2)

by David Boldt - Retired Journalist - From USA
(Santa Cruz, Bolivia)

Photo © BoliviaBella.com 2013

Photo © BoliviaBella.com 2013

1. How did you first hear about Bolivia and/or become interested in Bolivia as a possible place to live?

My wife, a financial administrator, got a job offer from NUR University the same week the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked, made a very generous buyout offer to employees. We had always agreed as part of our ¨life plan¨ we would go overseas when I retired so that Kelly could work for her Baha’i Faith, and NUR is a Baha’i-inspired institution. So it just seemed that God wanted us to go to Bolivia. Subsequently I got a generous year-long fellowship from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) to share ideas with journalists in Bolivia and Peru, which made the move even more attractive. We came to Bolivia for a visit, liked what we saw, and made the move.

2. Where are you from originally and why are/were you considering living overseas when you first took Bolivia into account as an option?

(See answer to Question 1.)

3. Which languages do you speak? If you do not speak Spanish, has this made adjusting to, and living in Bolivia more difficult for you?

English and Spanish. Speaking Spanish has always been more of a challenge to me than to my wife, even though I had more of a background in the language than she did. (Spanish 3 in high school, advanced Spanish in college, and lessons before I came down. And then we both took five weeks of immersion at a language school in Sucre, Bolivia, where the Spanish spoken by the people is supposedly especially pure.) However, I am still, after 13 years, not fluent, and have a particular problem with comprehension in conversations. Part of the problem is hearing impairment, particularly when there is a lot of background noise. I know I should look into a hearing aid, but just don´t seem to get around to it. But I have no trouble with the tasks of daily living, and can hold my own in an evening of social conversation, unless things get too complex or tiresome. Very hard to stay focused in meetings. All of my (teaching) jobs have been in English, which had a bad effect on my fluency in Spanish, but also reduced my dependence on it. Most of our friends are bilingual.

4. Did you come here as an individual, couple or family?

As a couple. (See Question 1.)

5. Are you planning to live in Bolivia short-term or long term?

Hmmm. Periodically we examine the possibility of moving back, but up until now we have not been able to generate “escape velocity.” It´s been too pleasant and easy to stay put. However, we now happen to be in one of those moments in which we consider returning. Aside from the recurrent desire to be ¨back among our own people” (and nearer our families), the major motivating force at present is health care. I am 72, a diabetic, and have other health problems. We would benefit from being able to use my Medicare eligibility. Part of my buy-out deal from The Inquirer included health insurance to age 65. I was offered a choice of Blue Cross coverage in US or a lump sum in cash, and I mistakenly took the Blue Cross coverage, which I never used. The cash would have covered all our health care costs from the day we arrived until now. My wife (age 61) and daughter have health care insurance here at a very reasonable cost. The quality of health care here has been good. For the more complicated problems we have gone to a hospital in Argentina, and this has been very satisfactory. Health care there is quite advanced, and, by US standards, incredibly cheap ($700 a day for a hospital room, vs. about $5,000 in the US.) To answer the question more directly, we feel we have been here long-term, and could very well decide to stay longer. We love our home, our friends, and our life generally. I still read the New York Times every day and the US sounds like it´s a mess. Political deadlock . . . incompetent millennials . . . , ADD-like preoccupation with problems that really don´t seem very important (abortion, same sex marriage, etc.). Not very enticing. Here they have real problems.

6. Do you work or plan to work or start your own business in Bolivia?

No, though heaven knows we have thought about it a lot. My wife did build a house and turned a tidy profit. We know a lot of successful entrepreneurs, but generally speaking the business climate in Bolivia is not good – government corruption and inefficiency, heavy regulation, restrictive labor laws. A German business magazine ranked Bolivia as one of the hardest places in the world to start a business, and no one here seems to care. There are reasons Bolivia ranks last (or next-to-last) in rankings of per capita income in South America, and they aren´t changing. On the other hand the city where we live – Santa Cruz – has been the fastest-growing in South America, and everywhere you look there are new buildings, new businesses, and other signs of economic progress – pushed along to some extent no doubt by narcotrafficking. (A university official we know calls cocaine importing “the only US aid program that ever reached ordinary people.”) So far the country has (largely) escaped the climate of lawlessness that has been spawned by narcotrafficking in, say, Mexico and Colombia. We tend to wonder and worry about how long that can last.

7. Is Bolivia the only country to which you contemplated moving, or did you consider other choices? If so, why did you ultimately choose Bolivia?

Yes. Largely by chance. (Again, see answer to Question 1.) We have looked seriously at other Latin American countries as places to live, and the most attractive we have seen is Panama.

8. What steps did you take to research about Bolivia to prepare yourself prior to arriving?

Aside from all of the obvious stuff – checking visa requirements (which used to be simpler), reading airline baggage regulations (also now much more restrictive), etc. – the most important thing we did was come down for a two week visit that included some traveling in the country, pricing houses, and looking at schools. It was somewhat costly, but it was worth it. We also read books and stuff on the Internet (like this stuff). By the way, the airline that is known to be most tolerant on the issue of excess baggage is Copa.

9. What do you miss most about your home country?

Nothing very much. I was recently asked that question and replied, somewhat glibly, “Old Spice After Shave Lotion.” But then I was recently back in the States for a month and discovered that you can´t buy it there anymore either. (At least not "original scent.”) More seriously I miss baseball and American football, many old friends, my 43-year-old son and his wife, my sister, fresh seafood, Walmarts and Targets. But the truth is that generally speaking we lack for nothing.

10. What do you like/love/appreciate most about Bolivia?

Again, this requires some contemplation. For starters, the price is right. Costs have gone up, but are still somewhere around half what they would be in the US, and less, for that matter, than other Latin American countries. And as long as one is living among the ¨haves, ¨ the quality of life – housing, recreation, shopping, and so on – is very good. My wife constructed our “dream house” here for about a third what it would cost in the US, and we would hate to leave it. We like our friends, of course. And while there aren´t many “ex-pats¨ here, the ones that are here tend to be very interesting people. We don´t always attend the regular meeting of the ex-pat group, but when we do we always find interesting new people to talk to, many of them doing very productive and worthwhile activities. And it is interesting to be here and watch our crypto-Commie president try to fashion some form of 21st century socialism, while maintaining a very vibrant (and extremely capitalist) economy going in our part of the country. Events can also be alarming. At one time we thought we would have to flee the country, but things have stabilized to a great degree. Still, I am often reminded of a comment made by a friend who had served in combat in Vietnam. It had been horrible in many ways, he said. “But you know, Dave,” he continued, “There was something to get your adrenalin going every day.” I sometimes feel that way here.

11. Did you relocate on your own, or do you work
for a company that relocated you to Bolivia?

We came largely on our own, but had a lot of help in terms of advice and support from NUR University and the ICFJ (see Question 1). But we bore the major costs, including furnishing our home here more or less from scratch.

12. If your plan is/was to retire in Bolivia permanently, how did you prepare financially, and in other ways to make that possible?

I had the buy-out from the Inquirer (a year´s salary), a modest 401K, a pension, a stipend from the ICFJ, and soon applied for Social Security. My wife had a job at NUR University. I have held teaching jobs on and off that provided a small increment. That has been enough, though we were much more comfortable about our financial future before we took a heavy hit in the Great Recession.

Please click to read page 2 for this expat's responses to questions 13-25 of our survey.

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