Category Archives: Masaya

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.

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“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.