Nicaraguan retirement upended for Jonesborough couple, forcing them to flee violence there

Becky Campbell • Jul 22, 2018 at 12:13 AM

When Debbie and Ron Goehring first set foot in Nicaragua 15 years ago to deliver school supplies, they fell in love with the people and the country.

But after living there as permanent residents for nearly a decade, violence has driven them out.

The retired educators  — Debbie taught at Science Hill High School for 25 years and Ron was the Milligan College swim coach — made a town on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, their permanent retirement home eight years ago. Before that, the couple lived in Jonesborough, and still own that home as well. Ironically, they own two homes but have nowhere to settle because both homes are rented to friends.

Through the first years of living in Nicaragua, the Goehrings rebuilt a home, gardened, soaked up the culture and immersed themselves in life on the island.

Debbie opened a children’s library at her own expense — with many donated books from teacher friends back in Tennessee and elsewhere — and she was a volunteer as the Ometepe Island U.S. warden for the U.S. Embassy in Managua.

It’s not as glamorous as it may sound, Debbie said.

The island is in Lake Nicaragua and is known for two volcanoes: Concepción Volcano is active and located in the northern part of the island, while Maderas Volcano is in the south.

Her duties included facilitating communications between other expats and the U.S. during an emergency or other situation. Once, they even had to prepare a man’s body after he died and bury him after not being able to find any living relatives in the U.S.

Even so, Debbie said she loved the life she and her husband built in Nicaragua.

“It’s predominately agricultural,” on the island, Debbie said. “They raise tobacco, rice, beans, plantains.” 

One thing that drew the couple in was the uniqueness of the country and that “traffic jams” there consist of pigs, cows or horses. An advantage to living there was also the low cost of living, they said.

“And it’s quirky ... Panama is too civilized for us,” she laughed. “They have a nickname for Nicaragua. It’s called the Land of the Not Quite Right.”

When the Goehrings first moved to Nicaragua, there was a fledgling tourism industry, but over the years they watched as the world began to discover the beautiful country.

“We saw the progression of the tourist industry — hostels, hotels, motorcycle rentals, restaurants,” Ron said. “More and more people (were) coming, climbing the volcanoes, kayaking, taking advantage of the outdoors.”

Tourism improved the lives of many impoverished Nicaraguans, they said. Initially the Goeherings had to go to the mainland for banking, but now there are four on the island as well as better access to grocery items.

Not only did people visit, they bought property and homes in Nicaragua like the Goehrings did. Their two-and-a-half acre property has nearly a dozen fruit trees, and Ron specialized in growing a variety of sweet potatoes. The fresh water around the island gave them plenty of opportunity to fish.

Debbie also busied herself writing a blog about their life in Nicaragua so folks back in the states could get a glimpse into their experiences: she has 700 stories posted since 2011 about living in Nicaragua.

But she stopped writing in April because of civil unrest.

The Goehrings’ dream retirement location started to crumble from beneath the couple in April after Nicaraguans protested President Daniel Ortega’s announcement to cut pensions for residents. It was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” they said.

Leading up to the proposed social security change, Ortega changed the constitution so there were no term limits for his presidency and appointed his wife as vice president. 

When citizens began to protest after the social security issue, Ortega abandoned the move, but the protests continued. The initial clash involved university students and police opened fire, killing several people. From that point, the violent protests have continued, with many Nicaraguans calling for Ortega to resign.

The Goehrings said more than 400 people have been killed in the uprisings and protests.

As U.S. citizens, the Goehrings were not allowed to participate in anything political in their adopted country, and they are at a loss for how to help their friends there.

“The best thing I knew to do is get the word out,” Debbie said Friday after having lunch at Main Street Cafe in downtown Jonesborough. She said when she would communicate with friends back in the states, they were in the dark about what was going on in Nicaragua and the plight citizens there face with poverty, and now, violence in their streets. 

The Goehrings aren’t the only East Tennesseans leaving the homes they’ve made in Nicaragua. They said a couple from Kingsport they met in Nicaragua were also returning to the U.S. They met another woman from Jonesborough who lives in Nicaragua but who plans on staying, even with the growing violence.

The Goehrings are getting used to more modern amenities available in the U.S., including 4G phone service, keyless vehicle ignitions and “the efficiency of things here,” they agreed. They plan to be in Jonesborough for a couple of weeks, then head to Canada to spend time with Ron’s brother.

They hope to one day return to their beloved Nicaragua, but are open to new adventures if that never happens.

“It will take tourism years and years to come back,” they said, but they hold little hope for that to happen anytime soon.

“My hope for them is peace. I’m genuinely heartbroken by what’s happening in the country.” She feels guilt for having the ability to leave and so many of their friends — especially native Nicaraguans — have nowhere to go.

To learn more about the Goehrings’ life in Nicaragua, visit https://retirenicaragua.wordpress.com.



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