Category Archives: Nicaragua

Departing Nicaragua: A Short Rant

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On the plane from Managua to Texas, I was unhappy.  I was not ready to leave the country and was even further annoyed by our traveling companions on the flight.  Being the mature twenty-something that I am, I plugged in my headphones and scrawled a two page rant in my journal:

taking off from Boston at the beginning of the trip. We’ve come full circle.

Ugh, I can’t believe we’re leaving already.  I could definitely stay for at least another month – we’ve seen such a tiny piece of the coutnry and I’d love to see the Caribbean coast.  Part of me thinks that if I didn’t have obligations for work next week, I’d absolutely arrange for a longer stay.  Sara and I are already trying to plan our next trip.

There was a security check before we boarded the plane.  The person who searched my bag was perplexed at first by the overall style of my backpack, so I had to help him get it unclasped enough to open it – and even then it was so tightly packed that he could barely get a hand in.  Re-closing it was another struggle.  I handed him my purse and told him I’d take care of the backpack.  He opened and dug through my purse, pulling out my copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  He flipped through it, looked at the cover, looked at me, and looked back at the book as if I was weird for having such a thing in my possession.  I felt judged but, it’s all good, I read what I want.

Let’s be real here for a second. How could you not want to read this?

Something I noticed about Nicaragua is that it seems to get a lot of missionary groups.  Sara and I aren’t together on this flight and I am surrounded by one such group with t-shirts that say “Involving People to Inspire Nations for Christ.”  Consistering the missionary spirit is part (there were many factors) of what turned me off to Catholicism, Christianity, and organized religions in general, you can probably imagine how I felt about this turn of events.  I realize Nicaragua is a Christian country, so it’s not as though they’re telling the people that their native religion and traditions are worthless and wrong (that damage was done when the first conquistadors arrived centuries ago.  Admittedly, it was not all bad, as the natives stopped sacrificing their daughters to volcanoes, but still.).

The issue I have with such missionary groups is that it appears they go into the situation with (conscious or subconscious) feelings  of superiority, maybe even a degree of white supremecy and definitely a ton of privilege.   This is theoretically made more harmful by the fact that they believe they’re being humble and helpful to the natives because, in the U.S., we do things the right way.   I am not at all saying that I’ve never been guilty of this.  In fact, I’m fairly certain I had a similar self-concept on the alternative spring break trips I participated on in college and even perhaps when I first arrived in India – that self-confident, self-assured idea that could change the world and make things better for peopel in these places where the society was not like our own.  How naive it was to believe that a week’s trip to a place can make any kind of lasting difference!  One cannot possibly make any change until he or she has learned the culture and understands what motivates people in the area and how society functions.  Learning takes years and committment and dedication to your chosen task.  As I’ve said before, it is so easy to flit in and out of a country.  You “live like the natives” for a week or a month or a year, but then it’s back to what you’re used to.  One week provides barely a peek at a culture that has been a millenia in the making.  When I left India after a year of working and living with the people in the area, I barely felt like I had a handle on the culture.  I was more comfortable, to be sure, but I was still just learning.

It is wildly selfish and conceited and irresponsible of us to walk into a situation with which we are unfamiliar and uneducated (because no matter how many books one reads on the subject, experience is infinitely more important (if you, like me, are a Harry Potter fan, then you might be thinking of Hermione’s disagreement with Umbridge’s claim that reading about defensive spells will be more than enough to get them through their practical exams.  Geek moment over.).

No, but really.

Without being intimately familiar with a culture and a people, attempting to stir up any kind of change in a limited period of time is nearly impossible.  Factor in your imminent departure and all your good intentions are even less likely to succeed.  Think about how you might feel if someone from South America, Asia, or Africa walked into your neighborhood, started making changes, and then left.  Attempting to impart change without being aware of one’s own biases and using strategies based in one’s home culture is ineffective, unsustainable, and inconsiderate.  It is so much more important to first learn the culture and then to give the people themselves the tools and skills to be their own agents of change.  Don’t go in as a savior, go in and empower.

I don’t know how to stress all that enough.  Nor was I anticipating going on such a tangent.  Essentially, the traveler, the potential do-gooder, must accept that they travel for themselves alone – to experience new cultures and to allow themselves to grow, to be changed by the people and cultures they experience – rather than to change what they see.  Accept that you are but a temporary, fleeting moment in the daily routine of the people you meet.  They may even remember you years from now, but if you’re in a touristy area, they’ve probably seen many like you.  The best thing the traveler can do is to meet each person as a fellow human, regardless of language or station, learn their story if possible, and remember that they, themselves, represent an entire country.

Appropriately, Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” is playing right now.

I hate that we’re taking off right now.  I also hate having an aisle seat.  I can’t help wondering when I’ll be back (I refuse to think “if”) and how this beautiful country will have changed in the interim.  I hate leaving new places and I dislike returning to regular routines.

Also, the flight attendant just suggested over the intercom that people shut their shades if not enjoying the view so that others can better see the TV monitors.  Gross.  That isn’t what this is about!

Final thought:  I should not wear white because I will inevitably draw on myself.

 

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Musings on Graffiti

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Sandinistas

On our way back from Masaya with Roberto, we passed a group of people wearing shirts in support of Daniel Ortega, the current president, and riding motorcycles.  Roberto informed us that they were Sandinistas, a political party named for Augusto Cesar Sandino who fought against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua back in the 30s (I feel rather hypocritical linking to Wikipedia, as I once told my students that if they cited Wikipedia as a source, “they would make me cry.”).  I believe the current Sandinistas are supporters of the Ortega, who was also a member of this group.

As we drove by the Sandinista biker gang, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all pretty young, roughly around my age.  This observation made me think of something David, our Granada tour guide, had said.  He was of the belief that this govenrment, these politicians, create evenets that suck in the youth and use them to make it appear as though they  have a lot of support.  More often than not, the youth aren’t aware they’re being used in this sense.  (On a related note: I just finished Game Change, a fascinating book about the 2008 election, that alluded to similar strategies used at conventions and rallies to make it seem as though the candidate is extremely popular.  Perception is everything, but that’s another rant.)  I also noticed that there was a black and red flag on the back of each bike.  After that, I started noticing that there were red and black swatches painted on walls and around telephone poles.  I’d seen them before, but now I started connecting the two as being Sandinista symbols.  Further (Wikipedia-based) research revealed that the red and black colors come from a Mexican anarchist movement that Sandino was involved with in the 1930s.  Additionally, there were many slogans painted on the cement walls that lined the main road into Managua such as “Viva Daniel!” “Viva la revolucion!” “Sandinistas” and “FSNL.”

Sandinista graffiti in Managua

What was interesting about all this, however, was that as we got closer to Managua, more black swatches appeared on the walls, as if someone had attempted to paint over the pro-government phrases.  On the city line was a phrase, “menos propaganda, mas informacion” that remains imprinted on my memory.  I feel as though we’re in a similar situation in America – most of what we hear is essentially propaganda, paid for by those with the money and power.  It’s becoming increasingly more difficult to separate what’s real from what’s contrived.  This makes it even more important to pay attention to what the media is saying and to attempt to read between the lines.  Critical thinking and reading skills are more essential than ever (I’m not just saying that because I’m an English teacher).  We can’t peacefully accept what the media and the politicians spoonfeed us, because everything they say is a means to an end.

That being said, make sure you’re registered to vote!!

What is Atole?

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Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t handle new foods really well.  Calling me “picky” is something of an understatement.  I started teaching myself to cook dinner approximately two months ago, when I realized that I actually want to try and be a healthy eater.  Prior to that, cereal was my lunch and dinner.  Vegetables and I have an extremely tenuous relationship:  I am only just now attempting to make myself eat more vegetables (this means once or twice a month).   Seafood revolts me outright.  While I’ve improved dramatically since returning from India (and hopefully people who have been paying attention will attest to this), the prospect of new food, specifically when someone else is providing it, stresses me out immensely.  I hate offending people and it seems to me that rejecting food is a surefire way to do that.  On the other hand, the idea of eating any kind of fishy creature makes me want to throw up.  I suspect that would be seen as offensive as well…

Granola bars are always a safe bet.

But, back to Nicaragua and Roberto, Sr.

After leaving Volcan Masaya, Roberto drove us to the market in the city.  On the way to the market, Roberto told us we were going to try something called “atole” later on.  Having never heard of this and being concerned about potential ingredients, I asked what atole was.  Roberto explained, but unsurprisingly, my ingredient-related vocabulary is weak (if non-existant) so all I was really able to comprehend was that it involved corn.

Exterior of the market (swiped from a Google search)

Masaya’s market is the largest open-air market in Nicaragua, which is pretty sweet.  It consisted of a labrynith of stalls and courtyards, full of salespeople hawking their wares.  It was a little touristy, but if you were willing to poke around, there was some unique stuff.  I struggled with the haggling.  Every time I’m in a place where haggling over prices is expected, I do my best to live up to the expectations but the conversation usually ends up sounding like this:

Me: “How much for this?”

Vendor: “100 cordoba”

Me: “I can give you 60?” (poorly done, you’re supposed to drop by half and then increase)

Vendor: (laughs) “100.”

Me: “O-okay.”

Shameful.  Fortunately, we had Roberto who, when we wanted to make a purchase, would handle the haggling for us.  He saved me at least $30 in total by casually telling the vendors what we’d pay, instead of asking hesitantly as I have a tendency to do.  At one point, Sara was trying to figure out the cost of a t-shirt.  When the vendor told her it was $5usd, Roberto caught my eye over her shoulder, winked and shook his head to indicate that we could find a better price elsewhere.

Interior of the market (also from a Google search because I tend to avoid taking pictures in marketplaces)

Our expedition to the market was entirely too successful.  Once we finished up, Roberto took us to a nearby street vendor for the aforementioned atole.  When we realized we were going to be eating street food, Sara and I had a mini celebration in the back seat.  Earlier in the day, we had been (half) joking about using our last day in Nicaragua to go to as many street vendors as possible, eat as much of their food as we could fit into our stomachs, and then deal with the aftermath of those poor decisions while on the plane.  This street vendor  had two cards situated next to each other on a street corner.  One cart had a pot of some kind of thick, opaque liquid while the other had little empanadas.  Roberto first offered us the empanadas, which had sugar on top and something reddish-orange inside.  He said it was queso, but it didn’t taste like that.  They were extremely good.  However, Roberto clarified that this was not the atole.

Atole!

Process of elimination indicated that the stuff in the pot was the atole.  This caused me some anxiety – what was in there?!  The vendor gave us bowls and spoons made from coconut shells, which was extremely awesome.   She then served us the thick, white liquid and put some cinnamon on top.  I know I like cinnamon.  This was comforting to me.  Regardless, I still felt pretty apprehensive because I had no clue what I was about to eat.  The only thing I knew was that I had to try it because Roberto was so excited about it.  So I did.  And it was good – very sweet, creamy and warm.  With the cinnamon, it was kind of like eating pureed oatmeal.  We all had another empanada, finished our atole and then Roberto tried to pay for us.  We nixed that quickly and said we wanted to pay for him because he’d been so awesome all day.  He allowed this, but then paid for the empanadas.  Sneaky.  

Back in the car, Roberto explained that this particular vendor made the best quality atole in the area.  Apparently, atole needs to be started at 4am.  It needs to be stirred all day and is literally just made up of corn and cinnamon.  He promised us it was very good for the system, all natural, no chemicals or preservatives.  He told us that he didn’t bring everyone for atole, only the “chicos y chicas mas bueno.”  That was adorable.  He said that for the malo chicos y chicas” he drove very fast and didn’t do anything special.  Furthermore, since we were over on time (we were about an hour past when we were supposed to have returned to the hostel) he was going to tell the hostel that the car broke down so we wouldn’t have to pay the extra $7/hour.

As we got closer to the hostel and he learned that we were leaving the next day, he said he wanted to drive us to the airport.  We were going to have to pay a taxi to get there anyway, plus he was charging a fair price and we were devastated to be leaving him, we agreed.

After saying goodbye to Roberto at the hostel, Sara and I walked over to the mall in search of a music store.  We found one, but pickin’s were seriously slim and none of the artists recommended to me by Roberto, Jr. or the waitress from the coffee shop were there.  I did buy a salsa CD, but unfortunately it’s awful.  Although it was getting darker when we left, we wanted one last meal (and not from the food court).  There was a nearby restaurant called El Churrasco that we passed every time we went to and from the mall, so we decided to try it out of curiousity, even though the doors were tinted and it looked closed.  I could see two waiters inside leap up from their seats as I opened the door.  We were the only two customers there, even though it looked like a nice restaurant.  Expensive, too, as we learned from looking at the menu.  We decided to stick with appetizers (grilled plantain and cheese for her, grilled chorizo for me) and alcohol (last chance for Flor de Cana, Nicaragua’s #1 rum!).  The food was excellent and although it was a little awkward being the only two people in the place, we managed to survive.

I want Roberto to adopt us. Also, as one of my friends pointed out, I definitely missed the black pants, striped shirt memo.

The next morning, we were up and out by 4am.  Before we knew it, we were at the airport again.  We had one of the security guards take a picture of us with Roberto – one last picture in Nicaragua!  Checking was easy and I was able to help a Nica woman and her mother (92 years old and adorable) fill out their travel forms.  I was so proud of myself for remembering what ama de casa meant, as I don’t believe I’ve heard it since vocational vocab sophomore year of college.

There are more pictures that I would like to add to this post… however, Sara needs to send them to me first.

“Maybe This Will Work…”

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“I feel like Bob the Builder.”  This was Sara’s take on our very stylish hard hats as we traipsed around the crater taking pictures.  It was a more accurate description that I really want to admit.

At a distance, the resemblance is indisputable.

Back in the car, we continued up the volcano, stopping at a gate to pick up our English-speaking guide named Joel (pronounced Joy-el) who relieved me of the surprisingly exhausting responsibility of translating  (this is not meant to imply that I wasn’t IMMENSELY PROUD of myself).

lava rock path & half of Joel

Joel was going to be our guide through the caves, so we drove a little further up the volcano and stopped at one of the shelters (in the event of an expulsion, hide under this if you don’t have a car).  The shelters strongly resembled bus stops so I’m not sure how effective they would be in the event of a true emergency…  Joel led us (including Roberto – I loved that he came with us!) along a lava rock path to a point where he stopped and showed us a cave.  He explained that 100 meters in, this cave reached the crater, close to the center of the volcano.  I was under the rather worrying impression that this was the cave we’d be venturing into, at least until Joel closed his explanation by saying, “…but we’re not going in there.”  Not that it wouldn’t have been seriously cool, but I left my gas mask at home and wasn’t feeling breathing all the toxic gas.

“This is not the cave you’re looking for…”

We followed Joel a little further to an irregular set of stairs set into an embankment.  As we stepped carefully down the stairs (it was raining and they were slippery), Sara asked whether all this (meaning the caves) had been created by lava flows.  Joel answered, “the cave, yes.  The stairs, no.  We made the stairs.”  We ventured into the cave and I became acutely aware of how dinky and weak our flashlights were.  Their beams didn’t really have much of an impact in the all-encompassing darkness of the cave.   It’s a good thing I’m not afraid of the dark or claustrophobic because there might have been an issue.  Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, however, the flashlights became a bit more effective.   I attempted to take some pictures within the cave, but, really, they kind of all end up looking the same because I was essentially just pointing and clicking.  Roberto was bringing up the rear and every so often he would say, “tsst, tsst!” and tap me on the arm to call my attention to a truly adorable little bat (or cluster of bats) blinking (do bats blink?) in the sudden light of his flashlight.  Invariably, they would fly away before I could get my camera in gear for a picture.  According to Joel, there were both fruit and vampire bats in the cave (plus another type that I can’t quite remember).  The vampire bats need to drink blood at least once a day or they will die, so they frequently snack on the poor little fruit bats.  I tried very  hard to get a picture of any bat, but failed miserably.

Absolutely one of the dweebier pictures of me, but that’s our guide (who I don’t think knew he was in the picture) on the right.

looking back at the entrance to the cave

At the end of the path, we found ourselves facing a wall of rocks.  Joel instructed us to turn our flashlights off, which we did after exchanging dubious looks.  He then pointed his flashlight at a rock at the top of the pile and told us to look at the spot after he turned off his flashlight.

He shut it off.

I have never experienced such a pressing darkness before.  It was the total absence of light.  To borrow the cliche, you could not even see your hand in front of your face (I tried).  Furthermore, aside from the distant dripping of water somewhere in the cave, there was no sound.  It was eerie.  Even more eerie was that when we looked at the spot where Joel had indicated, we saw a faintly glowing face.

After a few moments, we turned all our lights back on, took a picture, and began trekking back to the entrance of the cave.  Joel was very chivalrous, helping Sara and I step down when the terrain was rougher.  While I was aware that I was perfectly capable of getting myself safely through the cave (minus the couple times I hit my head on the ceiling), I appreciated the consideration.  You would absolutely have to sign a few waivers before going into this kind of cave in America.   On the way back, we asked Joel how he’d become a park ranger  He’d studied a relevant subject in university and then had been working at Volcan Masaya for three years since.  When we complimented his English, he said that it was harder to learn when he was a student because English lessons were much more expensive than they currently were.

alligator (or crocodile) (or T-Rex) shaped rock

Outside the cave, Joel showed us a positively ENORMOUS wasps’ nest with HUGE wasps buzzing in and out of it.  RUN AWAY.

When we were all back into the little red car, Roberto turned it around to face the way we came and then… reversed?  I had heard Roberto and Joel talking about how little and economical the car was, albeit lacking in power, but what Roberto was doing still didn’t click in my head, even after Joel turned and said to us, “maybe this will work!”  Maybe what will work?  WHAT IS GOING ON??  It finally made sense when Roberto suddenly accelerated up the hill we’d come down previously.    Of course.  The car didn’t have the power or the 4-wheel drive to get up the hill normally, hence the running start.  It was a tiny bit nerve-wracking, whipping around hairpin turns at the edge of an active crater, but we survived, so it’s all good.

Next: What is Atole?

In Case of Rock Expulsions, Protect Yourself Under Your Car

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On Saturday, Sara and I had found ourselves with the pressing question of what to do on our last day in Nicaragua (there was also the ever present question of,  “WHY did we think one week would be enough time!?”).   We ultimately decided to hire a driver and leave Managua to go see the market and the volcano in Masaya (this is the same one that had an “expulsion” a month prior), a nearby town.

We had been expecting something along the lines of a tourist vehicle, so when our driver pulled up in a beat-up little red taxi with Korean writing all over it, we were a little surprised.  We also learned quickly that he spoke Spanish and only Spanish.  Challenge accepted.  As previously mentioned, Sara speaks no Spanish and I have sad, caveman Spanish (my speech is wrought with grammatical errors and it kills me).  However, I managed to translate the rundown of the day for Sara.  He gave us the list of options for what we could see and informed us that if we went over on time (we had 3.5 hours), then we would have to pay 7$/hr.

hanging out at the volcano museum

As we neared Masaya, he seemed to warm up to us.  We bonded over the fact that  none of us wanted it to rain (so, obviously, it did).  We stopped at a museum halfway up the volcano, where he helped us to arrange for an English-speaking tour guide to show us around the craters and cave, then gave us his personal tour of the museum.  This was unexpectedly hysterical because my Spanish vocabulary is lacking in the area of volcanoes, plate tectonics and animal species.   Therefore, situations arose such as when he was explaining how the parakeets who lived in the volcano survived the toxic fumes.  I didn’t grasp what he said the first time around but, as I’m a little proud, I was unwilling to admit that I had no clue what he just said.  After his speech on birds, I turned to Sara and said, “Parakeets.  Birds.”  Clearly she was on to me.  There were many mistranslations on my part, but somehow they all got sorted out.  He was a very funny tour guide.  He took a piece of lava from one of the displays (ignoring the rope placed in front of the display that implied visitors were not supposed to touch the exhibits) and pretended to steal it by hiding it in Sara’s purse.  I really can’t do justice to his character, especially since he became progressively more awesome as the day went on.

This. Is. Terrifying.
Also terrifying is the mark on the glass that appears to be a large spider.

Also, did you know there is something called “Aa” Lava?  I kid you not – it is the original Hawaiian name.  Apparently, aside from the fact that if lava is coming, you should yell “AA! LAVA!” and run away (makes sense to me), it’s so named because when it hardens, it becomes spiny and sharp.  If you step on it with your bare feet, you would then exclaim, “Aaa!”  Kind of like stepping on Legos, I’d imagine.

I’m not making this up.

By the time the three of us left the museum, we’d learned that he was quite the photographer, hence the many pictures of Sara and I attempting to look cool while wearing what appeared to be the equivalent of a child’s hard hat.  The hard hats were required because Masaya is still a very active volcano that, as previously mentioned, had a minor explosion on April 30, which closed it for a month thereafter.   Our driver stopped every so often to point out how far the lava had come down the volcano (remnants of an explosion in the 1600s).  It was seriously cool – much cooler than Volcan Mombacho, which has been nearly dormant for so long that you can’t see the lava anywhere).  He had also learned about our fear of bugs back at the museum (imagine, a whole display devoted solely to the nasty crawly things), so he kindly stopped to point out where we might find certain key insects.

because this will save you in the event of an actual explosion.

Up at the crater there was a parking lot with painted yellow curbs that warned all visitors to “park your car facing the exit.”  Comforting.  The only advice the park pamphlet gave us in terms of safety and survival was, “in case of rock expulsions, you can protect yourself under your car.”  But… what if you drive a motorcycle?  What if your family of ten squeezed into your tiny car and came to visit the volcano?  What if your car is really close to the ground?  WHAT THEN?!  Fortunately, however,  nothing was expulsed while we were there, so we may never know.

if you look at the fog in the center of the picture, you can just see the curve of the deepest part of the crater

We went over to the crater (wearing our super-safe hard hats, obviously) and peered down into the depths, which was seriously cool.  It had just rained, so the crater was steaming profusely and you could just barely make out where the gaping hole to the center of the earth was.  We could also see the previously mentioned parakeets, who’ve adapted to the toxic gasses spewed forth by the volcano, flying in and out.  Humans, on the other hand, are not supposed to breathe in said gasses for too long, so we took a few pictures and wandered over to a point on the other side from which we could see all of Managua and Masaya spread before us.

pretty, isn’t it?

While soaking in the view of the countryside, we realized, rather shamefully, that we didn’t know his name!  So I asked and he informed us that his name was Roberto.  Somewhere in all the excitement of going to a volcano, we’d missed out on common courtesies.  Once he’d learned our names as well, he said, “After all this time, now we learn our names!”  There’s an important lesson to be learned here, but I’ll let it be implied.

delightfully noobtastic.

The Traveller’s Effect?

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Our last full day in Nicaragua was Sunday, July 2nd.  We were up at some ungodly hour to take Courtney to the airport, then Sara and I returned to the hostel where we discussed future travel plans and got some advice on traveling in Mexico from John.  (The more I hear about Mexico in my travels, the more intrigued I am…)

After a four hour catnap, we went in search of breakfast and ended up back at the mall, in a coffee shop with connections to the coffee plantation we’d visited on Volcan Mombacho.  I really enjoyed the music that was playing there, so I asked our waitress whether there was an album I could buy or if she could tell me the name of the artist so I could go get my hands on the music myself.  She said the music was streaming off the internet, so she didn’t have any answers for me, but she was more than happy to write down some music recommendations for me.

I save everything.

The music was awesome.  I’m currently obsessed with Fonseca, whose song “Arroyito” I shared in an earlier post.  I’ll share “Enredame” now because it’s also excellent:

 

I wasn’t sure how I felt about Camila y Frank Reyes’ song “De que me sirva la vida” until I listened to it a few times, because I usually have to be in a certain mood for a power ballad.  So, listen to it a few times and it will suck you in.

 

The thing I love about foreign music is that you really don’t have to know the language in order to enjoy it.  I tend to sing (terribly) along to Hindi, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese songs and know very little of most languages.  Of course, if you turn the sound off, it’s obvious I’m only making the sounds, but I choose not to see that as an issue.

Back at the hostel after breakfast, Sara and I met Roberto, a 19-year-old employee at the hostel.  He had a larger-than-life personality, describing himself as having once been good looking “before the gringo food.”  We learned that gringo/a is a term used mostly just to describe Americans.  I had previously assumed it meant anyone from Europe or North America.  He had some strong feelings on the dancing skills of the American females, explaining that he’d been dancing with an American girl once and “was confused.  I didn’t know what she was doing.”  This was pretty funny, as I imagined the girl as doing some kind of crazy booty dropping or hippie dancing.  He also said, “I think the blonde hair, blue eyes people, they don’t like us.”  He was speaking in terms of romantic relationships, but I thought it was an interesting statement nontheless.  As a tourist or a traveler, you visit a place, you make friends, and you have an awesome time that you then go home and tell friends and family about.  It’s hard to keep in touch with people you meet and then leave behind.  If they’re other travelers, then they understand that this is how it goes.  Sometimes you’ll meet again, but more likely you won’t.  It’s all up to serendipity, really.  But, if you bond with someone who isn’t a traveler, a native in a place you’re visiting, what effect do you have on them when you leave?  Travelers are very good at flitting in and out of places without setting down roots.  I understand this:  roots are scary.  Personally, I’m more afraid of stagnating than I am of chaos.  The thing is though, it’s very easy to get caught up in you and in your adventures.  For you, every interaction you have, every challenge you struggle through is part of the bigger picture of your life.

I’m pre-coffee at this point (and a little jittery), so bear with me if that became nonsensical.

Nicaraguan Mallrats

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Let me begin by saying that we were a little intimidated by Managua.  We had heard a lot about what not to do there and were feeling less than encouraged by guidebook quotes like, “tourists tend to land in Managua and leave.  Quickly.”  We’d also heard a lot about how unsafe and discombobulated the public transportation was (everything from it being impossible to figure out to the great likelihood of being robbed at knifepoint while on it).  Our hostel had a list of warnings on the wall, right next to a map that clearly outlined “safe” and “unsafe” neighborhoods.

However, we’re not the kind of people to sit in a hostel all day because we’re afraid to venture outside.  We didn’t do anything really extraordinary, but we did end up sharing what is a pretty common pastime with a certain class of people in Managua.

the mall.

We went to the mall.

Stop.  I hear you judging (I’d be judging).  Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m a mallrat or start heckling me for going to a mall when I’m in a freaking foreign country and could be doing ANYTHING else, let me explain.  I hate malls with a burning fire-and-brimstones passion.  If I go to hell when I die, hell will be a shopping mall around Christmas.  Commercialism and chaos.  I did have a brief mallrat phase when I was about 12 (I lived in South Jersey – there really isn’t much else to do), but I got over that fast.

So, obviously I was a little annoyed to be in a shopping mall in a foreign country, even though our options were limited.  However, as I looked around and slowly noticed that we were the only tourists there, I realized that we were, in fact, sharing an experience with the residents of Managua.  I decided to enjoy it.

Having spent little time inside malls since before India, I was overwhelmed and occasionally found myself casting my gaze around for a nice quiet space with minimal sensory stimulation.  However, I persevered and we wandered aimlessly around for a bit, before deciding the ultimate experience would be to see a movie in Spanish (well, subtitled in Spanish).  Sombros Tenebrosas (or, Dark Shadows) was the movie of choice.  Ticket buying was in and of itself an experience:  apparently going to the movies on a Saturday night is THE thing to do in Managua.  Everyone was seeing either Ice Age 4 or Madagascar 3.  Tickets were less than four dollars.  That alone made the entire experience worth it.

Since we had about an hour or so of extra time before the movie, we decided to complete our Nicaraguan mall-going adventure by venturing down to the food court to see what we could find for dinner.  It. Was. Insanity.  Absolutely packed.  I briefly contemplated the fact that if I was doing this in America, I would be seriously cranky.  But, it was Nicaragua, so I rolled with it.  The sheer number of people packed into the space was overwhelming.  There were also a concerning number of fried chicken places.  In a feeble attempt to be somewhat healthy, we ended up at a place called GoGreen! that did paninis, salads, etc.  I got a quesadilla that sounded good on paper, but in practice was so bad I gave up after half.  Courtney’s panini was likewise.  I decided it would be a better choice for me to have gelato instead of eating any more nasty, uncooked, limp, cold quesadilla, so I bravely navigated my way across the food court to the gelato place, where I stood in line behind two teenagers who were clearly on a date for what seemed like an eternity.   My length of time waiting on line was increased when two people casually stepped in front of me.  There’s the very real possibility that I was allowing for too much personal space between myself and the two teens.

the food court. Ignore the watermark, I swiped this from Google. Bizarrely, none of us thought to take pictures while in the mall…

As I learned, the way this gelato place worked was that you paid first, then ordered your ice cream.  I successfully managed the first piece, then waited for another period of time to place my order.  Clearly, I wanted gelato pretty badly.  I learned quickly that I was not allowed to order two flavors together and that the flavor I wanted more was a “different price.”  Okay.  So, as I was debating my options, the guy scooping the ice cream said (in Spanish), “Reese’s! You’ll like it, here, try!” and pushed a sample into my hand.  Never one to say no to free ice cream samples, I tried it.  I felt bad ordering hazelnut instead because he clearly wanted me to like the Reese’s.  However, as he handed me the hazelnut, he said, “disfruta!”  This means “enjoy!” except he said it quickly and I wasn’t fully paying attention (ice cream can be quite the distraction), so I said, “que?”  He repeated it in English and said, “you can enjoy!”  It was the highlight of my day.  I promised I would and returned through the sea of tables, chairs, and people to Courtney and Sara, who’d been wondering what on earth had happened to me.

We learned the hard way that the staff will not allow you into your theatre until the exact time printed on your ticket.  Our movie started at 4:10 and we were not allowed past the ticket stand until 4:10.  Also, our seats were assigned, which was actually kind of awesome.  We got to choose the seats at the ticket booth.  America should pick up this habit, because arriving late to a movie and getting crappy seats is never fun.

After the movie, we stopped by the supermarket to get some stuff to nosh on for dinner.  For some reason, I wanted tortilla more than anything else, so I bought a small pack of those (mistake: they were terrible).  We also found Nica chocolate (previously mentioned in the “Coffee, Volcano, & Where Almonds Come From” post on the former Blogger-hosted blog.).  I bought a bar of the 75% cacao chocolate, which was so rich that it took me two days to get through half the bar.  It was so gloriously wonderful though.  I’m devastated that it’s gone.

Leaving the store (foreign grocery stores are always fascinating, by the way), we realized it had gotten dark.  As we’d been repeatedly warned against wandering around after dark in Managua, this was not ideal.  Fortunately, the walk was not long and we made it back safely, where we met Roberto, a 19-year-old native who worked in the hostel.  He was hysterical and I’ll be talking more about him in the next post.

We decided to hang out on the patio behind the hostel, where I planned to do some writing in my journal.  However, we met John, an older American, and Malcolm, a 20-something from Toronto, instead.  We chatted a lot about traveling and where everyone had been. We also had a nice, healthy conversation about politics, which is always interesting, if one-sided.  I meet very few travellers who tend to be more conservative, which I’m inclined to believe is because traveling opens your mind to the point where it’s hard to accept certain policies or conservative belief systems.  (Obviously, I’m speaking in generalizations here and as we all know, there are exceptions to every rule)  Regardless, conversations and nights like that are the reason I really enjoy the hostel lifestyle.  The people are always interesting and everyone has fantastic travel stories.  Malcolm mentioned that he’d been in San Juan for a night and had stayed at the Naked Tiger hostel.  His review of the place made us exceptionally glad that we’d opted out.  Apparently, although the location was beautiful, the owners weren’t very hospitable, the other visitors acted as though they were above everyone, the nights were madness, and therefore, it was predictably weird during the day.

patio & pool, by daylight, minus the bat

As we sat and chatted, there was a bat that repeatedly swooped low over the backyard pool, occasionally skimming the surface.  It did it a few times before I realized it was drinking the water.  Very cool.

Next time:  Taking Courtney to the airport & Robertos 1 and 2

From San Juan to Managua

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Shame we had to leave, I was becoming accustomed to the view…

Saturday, June 30 was our day of transition from San Juan del Sur to Managua, due to a scheduling conflict that had arranged Courtney’s flight home to be the day before Sara’s & mine.

The packing situation in my backpack had deteriorated rather considerably since our arrival, thereby necessitating that I take everything out and start over.  Good times.  The souvenirs and gifts I’d purchased took up a large percentage of space.  I suspect that had something to do with the two pounds of coffee I’d bought from Cafe del Flores.

Once we were all re-packed, we decided to take one more stroll through San Juan, picking up some last minute souvenirs and making a pit-stop at a bakery that we’d driven by on our way home from the beach every day.  We may have been too successful in terms of souvenir shopping (yes, that’s possible).  The bakery, or panaderia, was called Pan de Vida (“Bread of Life,” I like it).  It had a brightly painted storefront with subtle wooden sign and a single door.  Walking in, I had a moment of confusion because it appeared we had walked right into the kitchen, instead of the bakery itself.  There was one woman, wearing a Survivor: Nicaragua  headscarf, kneading bread on a long counter, who looked up as we entered.  She washed her hands and came over to greet us.  The kitchen itself was yellow, clean, and felt friendly, with a brick oven in the back.  The woman showed us a small selection of fresh bread: aceituna (olive), sourdough, multigrain, regular, banana, and carrot.  Courtney bought a loaf of the regular and I bought some sourdough, figuring that would be enough to get us through the next day or so.

Swiped from a TripAdvisor post, this is the bakery

We returned Hotel Estrella after this, thanked the manager for everything and walked down the street to Casa Oro to await the shuttle to Managua.  While we waited in the reception, we watched part of a video on scuba diving in Nicaragua.  It seemed to focus predominantly on some bizarre creature with no clearly discernable eyes, legs, or mouth and with no real way of moving about, short of being buffeted by the current.  It looked rather like a sea cucumber or an overlarge slug with a duster around its bottom side.  For the record, I just Googled “sea cucumber Nicaragua” and, whatever this creature was, it was not a sea cucumber.  It was, however, gross.

We shared the shuttle to Managua with three girls from Canada who were on their way to Leon.  I really wish we’d been able to see Leon because I’ve heard many great things about it, including the fact that it’s less touristy than the other places we’ve been.

Two hours later, we arrived in Managua.  It was not entirely what I was expecting, not that I could articulate what that was exactly.  There were many American chains.  I’m always disheartened when I see Burger King and McDonald’s in foreign countries.  They are so gross.  Managua was cleaner than I expected, plus it had the first traffic lights I’d seen in Nicaragua.  We hit traffic almost instantly upon our arrival, which worked in our favor a little bit because the driver wasn’t entirely sure where our hostel was.  The road the driver wanted to take to the hostel ended up being cordoned off due to what appeared to be a block party.  Fortunately, another taxi driver offered to lead us in the direction of the hostel and all was well.

Taking a little siesta in our dorm room

We were staying in the Managua Backpackers’ Inn, a clean and well-kept hostel located in a safe neighborhood, just off the main road and a five minute’s walk from a shopping mall (y’know, in case you’re into that sort of thing).  We checked in and found that we were only paying $12/person for two nights.  Amazing.  We left our stuff in the 6-person female dorm we would be sharing with two other girls who happened to be deaf and wandered around the hostel a little.  I was thrilled to see that there were hammocks in the backyard, next to the pool. I swear, one day I will live in a place where I can install a hammock.  That may be all I want out of life.

Next time: Movies in Managua

The Belgian Who May Have Changed My Life

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one of my favorite beach pictures from San Juan del Sur

Towards the end of our mini-adventure at the Iguana (yes, we’re still at the Iguana), Sara flicked a lime from my drink across the bar, hitting the guy sitting next to us.  She apologized and apparently that was all he needed to strike up a conversation.  I believe his name was Morgan and I’m fairly certain I only remember this because we made him say it at least three times (“What? Your name is what?” loud noises “SORRY, I MISSED THAT!”).

Morgan was formerly a web developer in Belgium, before finally deciding enough was enough and that he needed to get out before it was too late (i.e. settling down and not being able to up and leave). So, he sold everything, told his family “adios,” and flew to San Francisco where he and a friend bought a car and began a drive down through Central America.

Obviously, upon hearing this, I began peppering him with questions:  what did your family say? what did you say to them? what made you want to do this? how long are you traveling? how long have you been here? where are you going next? were you nervous?

He said he’d been more apprehensive about going through Mexico which, given recent events in that country, is logical.  They’d only planned to spend a week or two there, but ended up spending two months camping on beaches and traipsing through the country.  I asked if the country was as tumultuous as the media made it sound, given that the media tends to blow things out of proportion.  Apparently the issues are mostly in the cities closer to the border and not country-wide.  They experienced none of the unrest in their journey through the country.  This was incredibly intriguing to me.

Following Mexico, they continued through Central America, stopping in places that interested them and spending extra time where they felt compelled to do so.  They had arrived in San Juan that morning and were planning on spending two weeks there.  After Nicaragua, they were intending to drive through Costa Rica to Panama, where they planned to sell the car and start using other modes of transportation to explore South America.  He wanted to end up in Brazil for Carnaval and figured he would probably head home next February, depending on whether or not he ran out of money before then.

Had I not needed to be back in Boston for the Thompson Island trip a week after Nicaragua, I would have seriously contemplated asking to go with him.  Instead, I came home and made a small purchase:

just planning a little trip…

Conversations like that make me realize how easy it would be to pick up and go, funding the experience through the sale of material possessions.  God knows I own too much crap anyway (books are not included in that).  It would be so simple.  I’m the only thing holding me back, funny as that sounds.  It’s a scary thought and something I’ve been mulling over for a while now.  I could get a job that paid well, even if I hated it, and if I could commit to that for a year, I could then quit and be free to leave, to have adventures.  An intoxicating idea.  Ultimate freedom.

So, we’ll see what happens.

“Quieres Bailar?” (Or, Why I’d Rather Dance in San Juan) (Repost)

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As any female who’s ever ventured out to a club will tell you, there’s something about dancing that seems to make it okay for random males to attempt to grope you.  Maybe it’s the modern day mating call, maybe it’s programmed into their genetic makeup, I don’t know.  They’re persistent, too.  If you escape, they tend to follow.   This gets old fast and you wonder, “why won’t they just let me dance?”  Because, if you’re like me, you get really frustrated when someone throws off your groove with the rather uncreative dance moves that seem acceptable for many (not all) of the male persuasion.

This is how I dance. You can understand why I dislike being interrupted

Before I proceed, I should disclaim that I’m sure there are females guilty of doing similar to what I’m currently accusing the male population of doing.   I also don’t believe this is all guys.  There is a specific type of guy who goes out to clubs, gets hammered with a single purpose in mind (hint: dancing isn’t that purpose), and doesn’t respect either the bodies or wishes of those he accosts.  That is the guy I’m talking about.

So, you can imagine what I expected when Sara and I ended up back at the Iguana one night and found it had turned into a full-on dancehall.  Predatory hazards or no, I’m usually not one to turn down an opportunity to dance, so obviously we started bopping around.  Eventually someone came up to ask one of us to dance.  Except he actually asked and didn’t grab.  Weirder still, when we declined, he left us alone.  Following this unexpected exchange, I started paying more attention to the dancers surrounding us.  There were dancers who fell into the category described above, but they seemed to be fewer and didn’t pose a threat.  There were also knots of guys in tank tops with huge arm holes, backwards 80s style baseball caps and knock-off Ray Bans who jumped around exuberantly.  They posed a threat only to our overall physical health as they were falling into chairs, tables, and people without care.  And then there was a third group who could actually dance.

You’re shocked and want to know more, I can tell.

The trend among the Latinos (I’m not sure if they were Nica or otherwise) who wanted to dance with us seemed to involve the following steps:

  1. Strike up a conversation, however stilted, due to my Spanish deficiencies
  2. After a reasonable amount of time had passed, ask to dance.
  3. If accepted, dance, but don’t grab hold like she’s a life raft right away.
  4. Dancing becomes more relaxed, but no violations of personal space ensue.

Also, they could dance.  It. Was. Awesome.  I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun dancing with anyone at any dance club ever.  We did salsa and a little bachata and a little hybrid.  There was one song that started and the guy I was dancing with got super excited and exclaimed, “samba?!”  I’m learning samba, so I was equally excited.  Obviously this style of samba was different from “competition” samba, but still incredibly fun.  This guy had been dancing with a beer in his hands at first, but then put it down because we were becoming pretty energetic.  We cleared a pretty solid space on the dance floor because we were moving all over the place and even attracted a small audience.  It was epic.  He was completely appropriate and didn’t try any funny business – entirely a gentleman.

Salsa Dancing Dog GIF - Salsa Dancing Dog

A salsa dancing dog. Family, can we talk about training Doogan to do this?

When the song ended and I thanked him for the dance, he returned the thanks and moved on to find another partner, instead of hanging on for song after song.  It was refreshing.
Obviously, they weren’t all as respectful as that guy, but if you told them to go away, they took the hint for the most part.  There are exceptions to every rule, but it’s nice to know that somewhere in the world they’ll actually dance with you (none of this shuffling business) and respect your wishes.
I leave you with yet another gratuitous beach picture:

Right across the street from our hotel.

Next post:  The Belgian Who May Have Changed My Life