In July 2015, the CEO of Wanderful, Beth Santos, connected me with Casey and Bill Morton, owners of Soma Surf Resort in Popoyo, Nicaragua, where I would go on my first press trip.
Soma means “South of Managua”, and it is quite the opposite of the mountainous region of Matagalpa that I call home. I headed to Soma to capture the spirit of this amazing place, and walked away with a new appreciation of surfing. I had never been to a surf resort. I felt vulnerable.
Just as I quickly learned to stand up on a surf board, I learned that you don’t have to surf to enjoy a surf resort.
Soma offers something for everyone, whether you enjoy taking a yoga class or sipping watermelon mint coolers by an infinity pool. Soma is a place that makes visitors disconnect with the stressors of the workplace. There are no televisions in the rooms, coaxing guests to socialize with one another over shared meals after exhilarating surf sessions.
Casey and Bill Morton both grew from vulnerable travel. I interviewed them to find out more about what made them leave the comforts of their from their small town, to moving to California, to opening up a Surf Resort in Nicaragua. Find out what travel was like for them, and how it’s changed.
Where are you both from originally?
Casey: We are from West Seneca, NY, outside Buffallo. It was a very small, tight knit community. It was always freezing cold, but we never let the weather get in the way. We would go to “Toboggan parties” with our friends.
How did you meet?
Bill: We were high school sweethearts. I was on the basketball team. Casey was a cheerleader. We met at a Christmas party. Casey had gone with my friend Steve, but then he got sick at the party. So, I asked him if I could take her home. We sat and talked on her stoop, and we went on eight dates before we went steady. The day Steve puked was the luckiest day of my life. We’ve been together for 45 years and married for 40 years.
It was 1970, and men were getting drafted to go to Vietnam. I had a higher lottery number, 256, so I wasn’t as worried about getting drafted. We went to a public school, so our friends were getting drafted right and left. I was learning how to sow and cook with the girls in home economics class, and the boys were in wood shop class. Could you imagine sitting in one of those classes, waiting to be called? That’s how it was for us.
Some of our friends went to Canada. Nixon eventually pardoned them. It was the only war where soldiers went and returned to protest. The protested on college campuses and in DC. Jane Fonda even came to speak at our progressive Jesuit college. It was a politically active time! Now, you don’t really see veterans protesting. It’s insane that at 18, you could be sent to war, but you couldn’t drink or vote.
There was an external political dynamic going on. There were riots on Detroit. Our parents on the other hand, were just happy to have a solid job, a car, and a dog. Then in 15 years, everyone questioned everything.
Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?
“We had both flown before in college, but the morning after our wedding, we boarded our plane to LA. We were the first people out of our class of 120 to leave. It was a blue collar town in the rest belt of America. Car part plants were closing, and we knew we had to leave.
Casey was a queen. She cried as soon as we sat down on the plane. The airplane staff asked if she was okay, then the pilot told her to control herself. I just thought “Does anyone have some Valium?”
Casey: I was bawling, thinking “What have I just done? Have I lost my mind?”
Bill: Soon enough, the fear stopped. We found strength in ourselves and each other. We both had an adventurous spirit. We had to focus on paying the bills, so we went job searching.
Casey: The LA employment office listed jobs on index cards on peg boards
Char: like the coupons at grocery store entrances?!
Casey: Yes! I had a degree in Sociology, and I went into Marketing. I found a job posting for Halston in the LA Times. I was one of 300 applicants. My interviewer asked me to meet him at his house, but I refused. So, he interviewed me at Hamburger Hamlet. I got the job.
Char: What made him pick you out of 300 applicants?
Casey: I stood out because of my passion. I was hungry for work.
Bill: The move to LA strengthened our relationship. We raised each other. This move formulated our move to Nicaragua.
Where else have you lived?
Casey: We moved around because of my job. We lived in Laguna Beach for 17 years, then we moved to San Francisco where I did marketing for Calvin Klein. Bill worked in schools as a speech pathologist.
What did your loved ones think about your travels?
Bill: My mom didn’t speak to us for five years after we left New York. In her Polish culture, she was used to living in a tight knit family. Leaving wasn’t an option. She was angry at me, and took it personally. We reconciled eventually.
Casey: My dad was sad to see us go, but he said “It’s your life. It’s what we raised you for, and we’re here to support you.”
Bill: our friends thought we were crazy. They visited sometimes, but we changed in a different way. We moved around, but we had the choice to.
How do you think your son, Bill, perceives living abroad?
Casey: Billy has been traveling since he was nine months old. He went to Indonesia and Java when he was five, and Macchu Picchu at seven.
Bill: I remember when Billy was nine and we were hiking the half dome in Yosemite. All of a sudden, he stopped and yelled “Why can’t we just go to Disney? Why do we have to do all this hard shit?” I said “It’s just a little farther. Once we got to the top, everyone there clapped for him.
Casey: Billy has always been at ease going places. He could be anywhere, whether it’s the Ritz Carlton or a village. Traveling gave him early exposure to different lifestyles and religions. He understood that people could be Christian or Jewish, and that it was okay to be gay. Once, we had friends who were a gay couple come over. “Why does one of them wear a skirt?” Billy asked. I just said “It’s because they want to.” And Billy would just say “Okay.” Billy is still pretty traditional in some ways . He takes his grandma to church.
How do you think social media has framed how we view travel?
Casey: People travel more now. We are more connected and can google anything. This makes the world easier to access. Back then though, we were more adventurous. We had outdated guidebooks. There was more of the unknown. I remember going to Africa alone for work. I bought a ticket through the newspaper. When I got to the airport in Paris, the FBI was waiting for me. It was a forged ticket! I had to repurchase my ticket and get my attorney on board. I went to Tanzania anyway, and climbed Kilamanjaro.
Bill: Surfing was also different back then. We used to meet at 6 AM and go look at the waves. There were no “surf cameras” so it was more exciting. There was more of a “renegade surfer attitude”. We might have spent three hours looking for the right waves, then ended up at In & Out. We would say things like “Let’s go to Costa Rica and figure it out.”
Where in the world are you now? Where will you go next?
Bill: Ideally, we would keep this place. We have a unique product. At the same time though, we’d like to spend more time back home. Both of our moms are about 90 years old. Billy is probably going to get married and have kids.
Casey: The point is that there is nothing for us to do there. We’re in our 60’s. What could we do? In the U.S., there’s not a place for older people. They’re neglected in the workforce, but their talent is untapped. In Nicaragua, elders are respected and cared for. Since the 2008 stock market crash happened, we know people who lost their jobs and ended up unemployed. In Nicaragua, the cost of living is low. There’s decent health care and interesting people.
Bill: At Soma, we’ve always been a step ahead. We were the first folks here to offer surf lessons. I came here on a surfing trip with Billy, and someone casually mentioned that this property was for sale. When I came back a year later, the price has dropped. The area was rustic and plain, but I knew that it was on the verge of exploding.
Casey and Bill show that traveling is worth the risk taking. As travelers, it was worth placing themselves in a vulnerable situation, because they eventually realized the potential in their travel plans.
They left what they knew behind and supported one another as travelers in order to make their dream of opening up a boutique surf resort a reality.
Stay tuned for a behind the scenese look at Soma’s restaurant!
Char J. Stoever
Char Stoever is a Mexican-American bacon lover, travel writer, and diversity trainer with a passion for the intersection between social justice and technology. A graduate of Wellesley College, she is grateful to have attended a women’s college where women’s opinions, aspirations, and accomplishments were valued. In 2011, she studied abroad in France, and after graduating in 2012, she taught in public schools in Boston and San Antonio.
In 2016, she finished 27 months of service with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, where she worked as an LGBT diversity trainer, social media manager, and fundraised thousands of dollars for gender empowerment camps. She’s currently a Visit.org storytelling ambassador, a Babyscripts prenatal healthcare mobile application Spanish translator, and a DC Bike and Roll Tour Guide. Char has written about travel, LGBTQ issues, mental health, and women's empowerment for sites like Go Abroad, Wanderful, and Travel Latina.