Competing For Candy

DancersWe were not certain what to expect as we walked into the auditorium of Casa de Tres Mundo in the heart of Granada on a Friday morning. We knew that we were attending a scholarship contest for Priscila, the 10 year-old daughter of Yanni, whose family has graciously lent a portion of their home to the school where we had volunteered for the last three months. In fact, we had supervised our older class the previous day in making posters to raise and wave supporting Priscila’s effort in competing for the prize. And we knew that some of the volunteers had been working closely with Priscila the last couple of weeks on the academic portion of the match, rehearsing answers to the questions that might be asked. We also understood that of the eight participants, only one would advance to the final competition in the capital city, Managua.

Contestant # 1Now we were prepared to operate on SOTB (South of the Border) time; we’ve pretty much acclimated to that aspect of life in Latin America. So we knew that we might have a bit of a wait when we arrived on time at 9:00 AM.  But we had our friends and volunteers from the school there, Priscila’s immediate family, the directors of the NGO and a small contingent of students from the Pantanal school.  The minutes ticked by slowly and, when the event finally began, it was not fashionably late, it wasn’t SOTB late, it was an hour and forty minutes late. Even the locals were beginning to despair.

CompetitionWe used some of the long wait profitably, however, and learned a bit about our hosts, MILAVF and La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundos. The former, known also as Movimiento Infantil or the Children’s Movement, is a nationwide organization that, for 34 years, has worked to enact and enforce child protection laws. They work in communities with at-risk children and adolescents, organizing them into dance troupes, sports clubs, performing and visual arts classes and ecological projects. La Fundacion Casa de Tres Mundo, which began in 1987, was founded by an Austrian artist and author and a Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician.  It has steadily expanded to include classes in the arts, dance and theater for the children of Granada, an art gallery with rotating exhibits for the public, a free, communal radio station and an arts program to encourage youngsters in the poorer barrios of the city and beyond.All the contestants

When the competition finally began it was with each of the girls coming down the makeshift runway in sports attire:  a tennis outfit with a racket, a cheerleader with pom-poms, a soccer player with ball and so forth. It was a bit un-nerving to see these young girls striking semi-seductive poses during their introductions and sauntering flirtatiously. Following this was a segment with the girls in their colorful, traditional dresses of Nicaragua, which included a short introduction to the judges and a brief Q and A for the academic portion. Interspersed with the program presentations by the eight young contestants were dance numbers by various ensembles; these were highly entertaining.The dance troupe

Finally, the results of the judges were announced. Our contestant, Priscila, came in third. Of course this was not what we had hoped for, but as she was competing with girls from the more affluent, private schools in Granada we were pleased with her showing. As third-place winner she received three gaily decorated bags with packages of sugared confections. The winner of the competition won a chance at a scholarship and was crowned with a tiara and draped with a sash in true Miss America style.  She also received a beautifully decorated cake and three flowered bags filled with sugared confections. As Jim, our school’s director drily observed, “Hey, they’re kids. They like candy.”

Priscila with the loot

Priscila with the loot

The ‘Hood: Living In Our Barrio

Vista MombachoIt starts to get light about 5:00 a.m. and the roosters commence their competition to welcome the new day.  Who can crow loudest?  Longest?  Most Inflections?  The birds join in with a songfest and soon we hear the occasional bark of dogs as households begin to stir and take advantage of the cool morning temperatures to get some chores accomplished.  A baby wails, a child laughs, a new day begins.View from rooftop of Vista Mombacho

We can go up to the third-floor rooftop terrace and peer over the waist-high railing into our surrounding neighbor’s irregularly shaped dirt yards filled with an outdoor stove for cooking, various shade trees, the occasional mango, and the ubiquitous banana trees. Drying clothes hang from lines and, in a haze of suspended dust, the women sweep the hard dirt backyards clean of leaves and place the debris into a trash pile with other discards to be burned every few days. The funky odor of burning trash and other garbage wafts into our window occasionally.

We are renting a cheerful, airy, one-bedroom apartment, about 500-square feet, at the Vista Mombacho Apartments.  Our apartmentWe have doormen who monitor the entrance around the clock for security and keep an eye on the neighborhood doings.  A small staff makes certain that maintenance problems are promptly fixed, the apartment cleaned twice weekly, the 5-gallon bottles of drinking water replaced as needed and our questions answered as they arise. The laundry facilities are clean and the Wi-Fi, while not blazingly fast, is reliable.  And, oh yes, there’s a lovely pool to float around in during the heat of the day and a roof-top patio for get-togethers or star-gazing while relaxing in a hammock.the neighborhood of Vista Mombacho

As for the neighborhood, zoning is a first world concept and “mixed” would most aptly describe the area. The predominant style is colonial with the attached dwellings fronting the walkways and/or road and finished in a stucco facade. Some homes are well-maintained with freshly varnished doors and a gleaming coat of paint. Neighborhood near Vista Mombacho Some are a little shabby and some are in uncared for, dilapidated disrepair interspersed with the occasional empty, trash-strewn lot. Mixed in with the houses are pulperias: small, family run stores in the front of the home specializing in convenience items and groceries, homemade foods and drinks, bicycle or small appliance repair shops, etc.  Many mornings we’ll glimpse the neighborhood women here and there busily scrubbing down the walkway in front of their homes or businesses.  At various times of the day, groups of men (varying in age but all unemployed) will congregate to visit or pass around a bottle.  Occasionally, as you walk a few blocks in any direction, will be some prone, passed-out man sleeping off another day of no work, no hope.

Home security - Stretching concertina wire

Home security – Stretching concertina wire

La Union

La Union

The two grocery stores we shop at, La Union and La Colonia, are about four blocks from our apartment.  Every couple of days we grab our canvas bags and set off. The stores are surprisingly westernized with shopping carts, scanner check-outs, and US and Latin American brand names. The familiarity and ease of shopping is reflected in the increased pricing.  We attempt to economize by buying some of our fresh fruits and vegetables in the small markets around the city or the mercado but the habit of convenient one-stop shopping dies hard.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, just a couple blocks down from the grocery store is the office of our physician, Dr. Francisco Martinez Blanco,  who speaks fluent English and enjoys a popular reputation in the expat community.   In the other direction is the Laboratorio de Diagnostico Clinico Jesus Christo known to expats as “The Baby Jesus Clinic” where you can get your lab work done.  Two blocks further on is a husband and wife dentist team, both fluent in English and trained in Argentina, who run a spotless, modern and well-organized office and personally performed  our bi-annual cleaning and dental checkups at a fraction of the cost of work in the US.

The Baby Jesus Lab

The Baby Jesus Lab

It’s not hard to find fault in any city if you’re looking but Granada, a beautiful little city, is easy to love and easy to feel at home in. There’s plenty to do and see in the area for those so inclined or there are many places to relax and while away an afternoon.  Parting company with the city and continuing our travels at the end of April will be difficult.

Field Trippin’ To La Playa Gigante

La Playa Gigante How do you reward kids who have perfect attendance and good behavior?  You take them on an outing to the beach!  And so, on a Saturday morning about 8:00, a group of around forty of the students who attend Education Plus Nicaragua met near the school where a hired bus waited to begin the odyssey.Waiting for the all aboard  Among the students were approximately twenty adults: volunteers affiliated with the school, other enthusiastic supporters who’d tagged along and a few parents.  There were smiles galore and anticipatory laughter and, when the “Everyone, get on!”  call finally sounded the kids scrambled aboard eagerly.

We headed south towards the Costa Rican border for about an hour and a half with the kids chattering, laughing, gazing out the windows and singing songs they’d learned in English and other favorites.Singing "My Heart Will Go On"  Above the bus driver’s head was a sign entreating “Jehovah, guard our entrance and exit now and always” and another sign above the door reminded us that the safe passage of the bus and its passengers was in the hands of The Father.   Thus ensured of the Almighty’s protection, we turned off the paved highway onto a rutted, narrow dirt road and bumped up and down and around the hills for a bit until, finally… the Pacific Ocean sparkled ahead.La Playa Gigante

And, here’s the part that totally astounded us, the kids, even though they were full of energy and itching to run into the water as fast as they could, lined up and listened as the safety rules were explained.  And … then … they… ran!  racing as fast as they could go toward the water before them.La Playa GiganteLa Playa GiganteThe huge beach, situated in a half-moon bay, was almost deserted; dark brown sand stretching long and wide with a gentle slope into the shallow water.  And, unlike so many beaches along the Pacific, it was fairly calm with just enough waves to provide some excitement for kids who were novice swimmers.  Playing in the waterOnly a few of the kids had swim suits (what luxury!) and  beach dress was anything goes, from t-shirts and shorts to underwear – it didn’t matter who wore what because fun was the order of the day.  The kids jumped in the waves, laid in the surf, splashed and yelled.  They kicked the beach balls about in impromptu games, dug holes to fill with water and buried each other in the sand. Sand in places you don't want to think about!Eating watermelon right down to the rindLunch was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven – fabulous but, of course, the perfect crust was somewhat underappreciated by the ravenous kids and devoured in about three bites. Wedges of watermelon followed and then… a sprint to the water again for more fun!

At the end of the magical afternoon, filled with laughter and many hugs, the kids and adults boarded the bus for the return trip home with happy smiles and a lot of pink noses.  The bus bumped back down the dirt road accompanied by a couple of howler monkeys in the trees.  P1010045 (800x595)The kids talked animatedly about their day and, except for two roadside stops to get rid of several gallons of soda they’d drunk immediately before the return trip – boys to the left, girls to the right and no peeking! –  the trip back to Granada was uneventful – good since all the adults were either a fixin’ to or were already dozing!I love Nicaragua

Back To Leon With The Granada Travel Club

Leon a La CatedralWe were late getting out of town that morning; it was almost 6:30 when the gleaming tourist bus, rented for the day, loaded up the twenty-five expats who were headed to Leon as part of the Granada Travel Club’s latest excursion. The late start put us into the thick of morning traffic, bumper-to-bumper with cars, motorcycles and crowded city buses as we passed through Managua on our way north; we didn’t clear the city until around 8:30.

After that the road was open with light traffic as we motored through small villages and towns past fields that were dusty, brown and wilting under a brilliant sun in a blue sky with cotton-ball cumulus clouds.  We’d last seen this area in September when it was verdant; the dry season was now baking the land.   About halfway through the drive we skirted the shores of Lake Managua; looking at the sparkling deep blue waters with gentle waves lapping the beach, you’d never guess that it was so severely polluted with sewage that swimming and fishing are inadvisable in most places.  In the distance, we watched the classic cone-shaped volcano, Momotombo, which was venting puffs of steam into the morning sky.

La CatedralWe parked in the center of the City of Leon, near the cathedral and by a large mural across from the Palacio Municipal.  We were met by our guide for the tour, Julio, and as he shepherded us through the symbolism of the mural he also interjected his own personal history.

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

The Sandinistas crush Somoza

Stoically, Julio related how he and three of his friends were picked up by the authorities of the Somoza regime one September afternoon in 1969 returning from baseball practice. He was fourteen at the time, accused of aiding the Sandinista rebels and without any rights or legal recourse. He endured imprisonment, interrogation and torture and survived periods of time confined in a coffin until his release in early December of that year. On Christmas day he left his home and went to the mountains to help with the coming revolution. His was not a unique story; a boy turned Sandinista revolutionary. The Nicaraguan Civil War and the subsequent Iran-Contra Affair have touched and scarred a generation of Nicaraguans on both sides of the conflict.

Inside La CatedralFinishing with the mural we walked across the street and entered La Catedral de Leon, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and the largest cathedral in Latin America. During our tour we learned that the esteemed poet of Nicaragua, Ruben Dario, was buried in the church and next we made our way to his childhood home, three blocks away.  Julio told more stories of Nicaragua’s native son as we walked slowly around the 19th century Spanish colonial structure beautifully furnished with antiques and a collection of books and art typical of the period.

Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz GurdianOur last stop in Leon, and the main reason many of us had come to Leon for the day, was the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian, an extensive private collection of artwork from Latin America as well as pieces by Picasso and Chagall.  Like the home of Ruben Dario, this house also was of Spanish Colonial architecture, cool and with a hushed atmosphere, built around several gardens and fountains.  The setting and the artwork were, indeed, amazing treasures and made us very happy that we had spent the day visiting Leon.

Where No Sewer Has Gone Before…

We all know the dull headache that comes when the city announces impending plans for a sewer repair or a road extension project. Checking it out In advance, we anticipate the congestion caused by the heavy equipment which will crowd the cars to the margins of the streets. The sight of earthmovers plying their trade on our public thoroughfares does not draw a second glance. But that is there, in the States – back home, where energy is abundant and affordable, where mechanical power has for scores of years replaced human power.

Detour For the last two-plus months, during our daily commute, we have watched a major sewer expansion project as the City of Granada extends the sewer lines into the previously ignored and poorer barrios south of the city.Digging  Electrical power has recently been provided to the vast majority of the area along with potable water. The sewer, as the most complex of the projects, is the latest improvement. So, if you need to construct a new sewer line and you do not have access to cheap, reliable electricity or heavy equipment, you use the resources that are available to you. You use the labor force to dig the trenches, lay the pipe, install the man-hole connections and complete all the ancillary work that needs to be done.

DiggingHand mixing cementNow, mechanized power is not totally absent. There are trucks delivering pipe and bedding gravel. There are water trucks providing construction water to the project. There are a few whacker-packers for compaction; there are even a couple of Bob-cat style loaders, presumably to assist with some lifting aspect of the work. But, primarily, the work is conducted with shovels and an enormous effort of physical stamina, brute strength and human power.

Does a project of this scope cause a bit of havoc in the neighborhood? Well, yes. There is no difference there. The major streets are closed or restricted with traffic forced onto the laterals. Passersby The number of “close calls” between vehicles and bicycles, scooters, pedestrians and the numerous horse-drawn carts, increases exponentially. Street traffic gets diverted to the unpaved side streets  creating hovering dust clouds for the residents. Traffic control, a discipline that has not yet reached its maturity in Granada, is inadequate – signage and traffic flow is a matter of secondary or tertiary importance.

Funding by Japan & GermanySewer constructionBut the work does get done. From our seats in the taxi we click our camera shots and watch as the project unfolds. The route to our school in the Pantanal neighborhood seems to change regularly as portions of the road are released for traffic. There is no major fan-fare about the progress of the work; it simply proceeds, day after day. The only sign, while not announcing Your Tax Dollars at Work, does explain that this new work was made possible with assistance from Germany and Japan.

So, say what you will about the disparity of construction methods between the US and Granada, Nicaragua.  There is still a basic and unmistakable commonality – those damn construction guys are forever leaning on their shovels!Leaning on the shovel

VolunTOURISM Versus Volunteering

One of our goals as long-term travelers is to volunteer two or three months at a time while we are in a locale for a longer stay.  Before we left the US we researched various countries, organizations and types of volunteer positions available overseas.  This led us, a few months later, to the option of joining an international volunteer agency and paying for the volunteer experience.  Following that, we discovered the in-country approach: arrive at a destination and start making personal inquiries of the locals and expats to find out what opportunities are available.

Toothbrush dayWhat we discovered in the process of our volunteer experiences is that we unwittingly became part of the “voluntourism” boom.   Voluntourism, or volunteering as a tourist, is promoted as a way to have an authentic and meaningful cultural experience (a sort of working vacation, if you will) while providing needed benefits to local individuals or communities. It provides nervous travelers to third-world countries with a hand-holding experience: contacts and a safety net with new, built-in friends.  However, it’s also an unregulated business sector which attracts huge amounts of money, advertises appealing good-works projects and draws in hoards of people wanting to do their part to improve the world. And all of this is with little or no oversight. It is both a buyer’s and a seller’s market. Almost any volunteer assignment can be found on the internet for a price and the old Latin injunction, caveat emptor, should be kept in mind.

Teaching English in GuatamalaOur first volunteer experience in Antigua, Guatemala was secured through a New Zealand agency with whom we felt relatively comfortable due to their transparent accounting profile. The time volunteering in the Antonio Escobar y Castro School was a phenomenal experience. However, the costs proved to be another matter. School girls in AntiguaThe fees ostensibly covered the room-and-board for a home-stay (which proved to be much less than satisfactory), the materials needed for the work at the school (which proved to be woefully inadequate) and the administrative costs of the company (which appeared to be more than generously staffed and housed). In our Antigua sojourn we discovered that the typical volunteer was a younger, predominantly white client who spent two weeks or less in the assignment minus the time for three or four day week-end jaunts to tourist destinations arranged by the local agency.

Activity dayWhen we started looking for our second volunteer gig, having gained some insight from our Antigua adventure, (fool me once shame on you, ….) we spoke with a trusted friend who told us about Education Plus Nicaragua and supplied an email address.  We contacted them, discussed our qualifications and their needs, met the directors of the NGO and found out they’d be delighted to have certified English teachers.Coloring  We signed on for a three month commitment and we’ve approached this experience as we would any job paid or not; we come on time prepared to work and do our best to make sure the kids learn. ColoringWe’ve discovered that there are a myriad of NGO’s worthy of our personal support and we need not pay an intermediary to perform our due diligence or secure our lodging. The current organization is small but growing.  It hires – to the extent possible – local, Nicaraguan personnel and is supported by the immediate community. In those respects it has a decent chance of becoming self-sustaining with secured capital funding from abroad.

Does all of this mean that going through an agency to volunteer is a less than worthwhile endeavor? Not necessarily. It can be quite costly. It can be a non-productive or even counter-productive experience when there is a mismatch between the volunteer and the work. And there is some evidence to support the notion that “voluntourism” has become one more commodity in the western world’s list of conspicuous consumption items. But if there is a good fit between the individual and the project and the program is reputable then wonderful experiences can await. But as always, “Let the buyer beware.” Angel smiling

Teaching English And Volunteering In Pantanal

It’s hot in Granada during the dry season and, according to the weather forecasters, it’s going to get even hotter next month. This February the temperature has averaged in the mid-to-upper eighties.  In the neighborhood where we volunteer for Education Plus Nicaragua, Pantanal, the temperature seems to be amplified by several degrees.  The corrugated tin roof that covers the classroom at the school seems to intensify the heat. When the breeze makes an unexpected appearance it picks up the fine grit from the bare dirt yards and unpaved roads and deposits a fresh layer that sifts across and down over everything.   

PantanalFew tourists visit Pantanal and taxi drivers are reluctant to drive us to the neighborhood because of the distance from city center, the unpaved roads in much of the barrio and the detours caused by sewer extension construction. Some days, if we don’t have our usual taxi driver, Nestor, we’ll  have to ask over and over “Barrio Pantanal, por favor?” before we receive an affirmative response; most simply give a brusque shake of the head as they continue on their way.

Edu-Plus, Yanni's houseWe arrive each morning about 11:30 at the home owned by Yanni and her family where the school is currently located.  We set up the low tables and chairs which serve double duty as dining tables for those children receiving lunch or dinner and desks for the seventy or so students in one of the four classes.  lunch timeServing lunch to the youngest of the students is one of our favorite times.  The little ones, of pre-school and kindergarten age, line up with their bowls, spoons and glasses that they bring from home and wait patiently.  For some, this might be their only meal for the day.  Only a few weeks ago, when they first enrolled in the school at the beginning of January, it was a madhouse with children shouting, pushing and shoving to be first in line. Now they wait. They know there will be food for all.

HandwashingFollowing hand washing, we take turns with the other volunteers alternating between pouring the reconstituted milk into their glasses and dishing up the day’s offerings which might includeWaiting for lunch rice, beans, soy patties, cabbage slaw salad or fried plantains.  The children begin the meal time with a prayer in Spanish, hands steepled together, occasionally peeking out at one another from under their brows.   Towards the end of the meal the kids will share the food they don’t want with others and there’s always a stray dog or two from the street winding their way under the tables hopefully waiting for the scraps.

lunch time at the schoolWhen lunch is over we team up with the newly hired Nicaraguan college student, Johanna, to teach English to three classes daily, every Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 3:00.  We divide the children into small groups to facilitate both learning and control.  The materials are a mishmash of donated educational items and home-made flash cards and posters. There is a portable white board at the front of the classroom area for the teacher and students to use. Each weekend we plan out ways to introduce new vocabulary, activities and songs to make the learning fun for all of us.

group workAt the end of the afternoon, we catch a taxi home, sometimes buoyed and smiling by a day that went as we had planned with games and learning proceeding as envisioned.  Other days we leave a little disheartened or frustrated by one or another of the classes that was disruptive or uncooperative.  We’re enervated by the cacophony that surrounds the little open school room in Pantanal; the children, the barking dogs and the booming loud music and Spanish talk radio from the house next door.  We return to our area of town where the temperature seems to be not so intense, the streets are paved and we can walk in our bare feet across the cool, clean tile floors of our apartment.

But when the taxi arrives the next morning at Yanni’s house, there will be a few early arrivals waiting with smiles and eager bright-eyed faces, arms outstretched for a hug and ready to help us haul out the tables and chairs for another day.Jumprope

Life Is Like A Box Of Chocolates: El Museo de Choco

El Museo de ChocoWe’ve passed by Granada’s El Museo de Choco, the Museum of Chocolate, many times but on the day that celebrates all things chocolate, Valentine’s Day, we finally stepped in.  It was a very hot day so we chose their signature drink, iced chocolate, an amazingly refreshing and satisfying concoction. A few days later we joined a group of five other devotees in a class, “From Bean to Bar” which was designed to teach the rudiments of the making of chocolate.

The cacao tree with podsThe class also presented a better understanding of the role of the cacao (pronounced ca COW) tree within the broader context of history. We learned, for example, that the cacao tree was indigenous to the Mayan homeland and that it was grown in most family garden plots. So, unlike the Aztecs who reserved the chocolate exclusively for their royalty, all Mayans, from the nobility to the lowest classes could enjoy the fruits of the cacao tree. The Mayans preferred it as a hot, frothy drink flavored with honey and chili peppers.

Roasting the beans in an ironwood cauldronroasting cacao beansThe  fermented cacao beans, which grow from twenty to sixty per pod, were roasted over a low fire in an ironwood cauldron for roughly fifteen minutes.  As the day’s temperature was ninety-plus degrees it was hot and sweaty work to stir the beans over the fire, but with a bit of song and dance by all participants, it played out well.

We then winnowed the beans, cracking the husks, picking out the nut meat and placing the small pile into a basket. Next, we crushed the nibs using a stone mortar and pestle to make the paste necessary to produce the cacao butter for the sweet drink.

stirring with a molilloFinally, we were ready to create our libations: First, the frothy Mayan drink and then the Aztecan brew, traditionally flavored with honey, vanilla beans and black pepper.  The Spanish version, which the conquistadors were quick to expropriate, incorporated sugar milled from imported sugar cane and milk from their transplanted cow herds along with cinnamon and other spices. Chocolate barsWe finished up our tour by making our individual candy bars; one bar combined the chocolate with honey and chili peppers and the other bar was mixed with honey, almonds and cinnamon.  At the end of the class we toasted each other with another glass of iced chocolate drink (no dinner necessary after that!).

The world has moved forward tremendously since the days of the Mayans, Aztecs and Spaniards. Cacao is still grown in Central America and since it is indigenous to the land, tends to have the highest quality and can be produced organically. However, the demand world-wide is simply too great. Vast monoculture plantations are found in Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere to supply the sweet tooth, particularly in the developed world. The upshot is that the sun farms, far removed from the rain forest of Central America, are vast acreages which require herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and eliminate habitat diversification for animal species and crop diversification for the worker’s economic protection.

Cacao production has, for better or worse, joined the ranks of the commodities of modern world.Cacao Liquer

The Cafe Of Smiles

Although Nicaragua is the largest nation in Central America, it is the most sparsely populated and second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  Hardship is a looming shadow over this country with an estimated 45% of the population living below the poverty line which, needless to say, has a much lower threshold than in the United States or other “first-world” countries.  Add high unemployment and under-employment levels for able-bodied citizens and guess what happens to people with disabilities?

There are few services or opportunities for people with disabilities in Nicaragua’s countryside and so Granada, which has a special education school and some educational options and NGO programs, is a gathering place for families with members who are disabled.

The cafe of smiles and Smiles CoffeeWhich brings us to el Cafe de las Sonrisas, the Cafe of Smiles.  With a little digging we found that it is the first coffee shop in the Americas and the 4th in the world to be run entirely by people who are deaf and mute.  Big things behind little doors-Cafe SonrisaThe home of Smiles Coffee is located behind an unassuming entrance on Calle Real Xalteva in a large colonial building with a beautiful interior garden courtyard filled with a variety of plants and a central fountain.  Surrounding the courtyard are tables on one side, walls covered with images of the international sign language and an adjacent hammock workshop and showroom.A hammock to lounge by the garden  After ordering one’s coffee or a simple Nicaraguan-style meal from the menu and cards, which are designed to assist customers in communicating with the staff, you can wander over to the workshop areas.  The numerous large and open-air work stations create a pleasant and interesting waiting experience where one can watch employees weave brilliantly colored hammocks.

Weaving hammocks at Cafe Sonrisa   The signature quality product, called The Never Ending Hammock, symbolizes the goals of:  1) providing employment for the disabled of Nicaragua and, 2) highlighting an environmental focus on recycling plastic bags, the raw material from which the hammocks are made.

Weaving hammocksThe cafe is the latest addition to the Social Center Tio Antonio and is an inclusive educational and employment center for persons with disabilities.  The founder, Hector Ruiz, is a Spanish emigrant who has made his home in Nicaragua following a foray in Costa Rica as a restaurateur.  Early in his time in Nicaragua he met a man who was deaf and mute and began to help him by locating a teacher.

Just beginning the weavingSoon he was introduced to several other persons with similar disabilities and his efforts to assist with their education grew until he required a funding source to continue.  Aided by a local hotel, he opened a business to teach job skills and employ persons with various disabilities to make and sell beautifully crafted hammocks which has subsequently morphed into Tio Antonio Centro Social. The non-profit business, within the context of a community center, offers support to the hearing and visually impaired population in the areas of education, health care and dignified employment

weaving a hammock chairThe goal of Tio Antonio is nearing fruition: building self-sustaining businesses that flourish based upon product excellence and first-rate service. Customers return and bring their friends and recommend the shop to others because of the beauty, quality and value of the hammocks, the tasty fresh fruit drinks, satisfying, typical-style Nicaraguan meals and the whole-bodied flavor of the coffee.  In addition to the above, the knowledge that one is supporting a truly worthy endeavor nearly guarantees a smile pasted on the mug of the customers as they leave el Cafe de Sonrisas.Hammock factory next to cafe Sonrisa

An American Napoleon In Nicaragua: The Little Generalisimo

Never heard of William Walker?  Don’t be alarmed: we hadn’t either until we reached Granada.  September 15th might be Independence Day in Nicaragua but September 14th is considered even more important to Nicaraguans as it celebrates the day that William Walker fled the country.

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

One of the few original houses in the city not destroyed by William Walker

The United States in the first half of the 19th century was in the grip Manifest Destiny – the notion that we, as a nation, should spread across the continent and as far north and south as the flag was able to carry our young democracy. That these lands were occupied and governed by other sovereignties was of little importance. The prevailing thought was that it was, after all, the God-given destiny of the United States to control these lands and peoples.

WilliamWalker

Walker, a man of big dreams but small stature (5’2”), began his filibustering – the old definition meant unauthorized attempts to encourage foreign rebellions versus the new definition of legislative stalling – career in Mexico in 1853. After initial victories by his tiny volunteer army he was routed and skedaddled back to California. In San Francisco he was charged and tried for “conducting an illegal war” but a jury of his peers found him not guilty after a speedy deliberation of eight minutes. The country was ready for citizens with expansionistic ideas!

Nicaragua, like most of Latin America, won its independence from Spain in 1821. Freedom however brought its own strife. The country was divided by two power centers: Leon, the Liberal Party’s power base, and Granada, the Conservative Party’s bastion. A low-level and intermittent civil war between the two power centers continued throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1855, with the dispute escalating, Leon requested foreign assistance in its ongoing conflict with Granada and who should heed the call but our freebooter and filibuster, William Walker.

With a small force of American and foreign adventurers, Walker landed in Nicaragua and, with the aid of the Liberal’s military forces, advanced on Granada. The conflict ended with Walker’s victory. His next move astounded even his Conservative supporters. In 1856, following a rigged election which Walker orchestrated, he had himself declared President of Nicaragua and presided from 1856-7. He went so far as to call for Nicaragua to be annexed to the United States and recognized as a slave-holding state.

William Walker's Presidential Palace

William Walker’s Presidential Palace

All this lethal tomfoolery had the unintended effect of unifying Leon and Granada, the once implacable foes. And Walker’s expansionistic language threatened Nicaragua’s neighbors; Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador. Counter attacks were launched, Walker’s forces were defeated and with Granada, his capital, under attack Walker struck his colors and retreated. His spleen was not yet empty.  In the wake of the retreat an aide-de-camp ordered the burning of the city.  At the outskirts a sign was posted “Here was Granada”.

The battle of San Jacinto-Walker's resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

The battle of San  Jacinto – Walker’s resounding defeat had him fleeing for his life

Little remains of the original colonial city of Granada; the Catedral Merced, the Casa Gran Francia and a colonial home near the cathedral. The remainder was destroyed in the conflagration or subsequently lost to renovation and expansion.

La Merced - still standing

La Merced – still standing

And our old friend Walker? He survived and made his way back to the United States. However, not one to admit defeat, he regrouped, refortified and returned to Latin America in 1860 to aid a disgruntled faction of English colonists on the Honduras Bay Island of Roatan. He sailed from the island intent upon attack but was intercepted by the British navy, who deemed him hostile to their interests in the region.  The Brits turned him over to the Honduran authorities in Trujillo, Honduras and he was executed by firing squad on September 12, 1860. An inglorious but fitting end for a freebooter, filibuster, and would be king.

Slow Traveling: Putting Down Shallow Roots

Boy with a stick & tire We like to travel slowly.  When we came back from Big Corn Island to Granada at Christmas we almost felt like we were coming home. Neighborhood Kids  True, this was our third trip back in as many months and there was that warm, fuzzy feeling of the familiar.  True, it was great to return to a city we knew and nod again at familiar people on the streets.  True, it was so much easier to know already which direction to go to find the shops and visit favorite restaurants than to set off on the initial exploration of a new city.  And true, it was wonderful to see and talk to friends we had met previously.

Our initial plan in December was to spend Christmas in Granada and, at the beginning of the New Year, make our way through Costa Rica with a visit to the Caribbean side and head to Panama.A smile and a wave  But… we couldn’t get excited, even as we stared at the map at places that had previously stirred our imagination.  We felt kind of fizzless.  When we looked at bed-and-breakfast places, hostels and hotels all we could see were the hefty dollar signs attached and we lacked the enthusiasm to dig a little further for places to stay that were more reasonable.  Our act of procrastination and deciding to not decide on the next step presented a third option:  Why not stay a couple of months in Granada?

Pigs in a poke (kind of)And so, we reached out to the expat community.  During our previous visits we’d heard that there was a monthly meet and greet of expats who were establishing and reinforcing business contacts but then we learned there was also an informal gathering every Friday in front of the Grill House on Calle Calzado.  A few people, foreigners who now lived in Granada, both permanently and for shorter stays, and also people passing through would get together around 5:00.

Catching a bite to eatWe almost missed our first meeting. A rainstorm had us waiting in the inner courtyard with no group of expats in sight  When we gave up and came outside, though, there were a couple of tables pushed together and a few people sitting at them conversing.  We boldly walked up to the table (we never would do this in the US) and asked, “Is this the expat get-together?”.  In short order we had new acquaintances, an appointment to see an apartment, a list of places to inquire about volunteer opportunities and an invitation to lunch the next day.

A working familyThat is one of the beauties of slow travel. Since there is seldom a fixed itinerary there is no reason not to extemporize on the travel agenda. We have great latitude in deciding to extend a stay in places that please us, settle a bit more into a community and explore previously undiscovered places.  The only requirement of slow travel is that the roots must, of necessity, be shallow. For at some point we will pack up and be moving on again.

La Fiesta

Ladrilleria Favilli: Where Italy Meets Nicaragua

Ladrilleria Favelli workroomThe sign on the building reads Ladrilleria Favilli and the sidewalk in front of the building on Calle Santa Lucia in Granada is a colorful patchwork of tiles in many original and classic designs.Tile selection  We poked our heads in the door to check out the displays of distinctive and traditional patterned tiles and the pretty woman sitting at the desk, Maria, invited us to come in and look around the workspace.  While we admired the beautiful tiles she shared the fascinating history of the tile factory and explained and showed us how the tiles were made. 

In 1915, leaving war-torn Europe and Italy behind, Mario Favilli, Maria’s great-grandfather, arrived in Granada accompanied by his wife and two children.   Mario was an architect and sculptor and, to support himself and his family in his newly adopted country, he brought two hydraulic presses for the making of the tiles which grace the floors of many homes, both old and new, throughout the city.Using the press

There are many things that make the Favilli tiles unique.  Each tile is handmade: the molds are classic patterns and many were designed by Favilli himself although customers can create their own designs and select the desired colors for a truly one-of-a-kind floor.  Favilli’s will then create a template to meet the custom order.  The tiles are made out of cement (not clay as we had assumed), are approximately ¾ of an inch thick and weigh almost 8 pounds each.  The colored pattern runs halfway through the tile so, needless to say, they’re extremely durable!

Pouring the colored cementWe followed Maria into the factory as she gave us an impromptu tour.  Sand is brought into the workspace through the courtyard and a worker then sieves it to remove any over-sized pieces of sand, rock or debris.  The resulting fine sand is then mixed with water and concrete by hand in buckets and color is added to create a thick, viscous liquid to be used for the design.  The liquid is carefully poured into the molds in several different steps as one color after another is added to make the motifAdding the 2nd half -wet concrete and dry.  At this point, with the mold halfway filled, moist concrete mixture and then a thin layer of the dry mixture are added. A weight is placed on top of the mold and the whole, heavy load is transferred to the hydraulic press which squeezes out the liquid (about 15 seconds).  The template is turned upside down and the resulting tile is carefully removed and placed on its edge in a line with previously made tiles where it will need to dry for at least seven days before it can be laid.  The tile must cure for at least three months if it is to be sealed and polished.on the line

Finished productThe resulting handmade tiles can be arranged in an endless possibility of designs and patterns forming borders and “carpeted” areas on the floor, countertops and bathroom walls throughout one’s home.   After all, why limit art to paintings on the wall?Finished tiles

A Year’s Accounting or…We Spent What?

money-stream roadA pox upon budgets

We’ve never budgeted in our lives. The whole notion of a budget was antithetical to our concept of being. Yet, when we first started planning our great adventure one of our foremost questions was “How Much”?  We diligently researched destinations across the globe and avidly read travel blogs and how-to books on retirement in various countries that broke down costs.  Some articles boasted that expat couples were living in Ecuador and Nicaragua for as little as $800 per month Chiapas Mexicowhile others said $2500 a month would entitle one to a lifestyle one could only dream of back in the States.

When we hit the road in September of 2012 we started tracking our daily expenses and charted it in a monthly spreadsheet.  This was basically to give us a baseline and to anticipate future costs. We also had to learn and adopt a lifestyle that was both commensurate with our desires and our bank book.

Lodging is the largest single cost and our criteria have remained consistent: safe, clean, affordable. When possible we look for weekly or monthly rental bargains.

Caveats

Medical costs are excluded; these are too idiosyncratic.

All costs associated with life back in the states are excluded such as costs associated with our house that we are currently leasing (and plan to sell this year), charitable and Christmas gifts, etc.

Mean Monthly Costs by Category for Calendar Year 2013

Items Clothing Food Lessons Meals Misc. Rent Tours Trans. Totals
Mean 44.30 368.10 164.98 407.49 190.84 875.40 136.24 240.58 $2367.40
Maximum 115.62 632.99 400.00 587.70 383.70 1697.56 503.80 503.80 N/A
Minimum 5.00 77.33 0.00 202.02 80.15 221.76 1.34 13.00 N/A

 What’s Included

  • Clothing: Clothing covers everything from rain ponchos, sunglasses and second-hand shirts to Teva sandals shipped in from the states.A truckload
  • Food: Includes consumable items as well as household products (shampoo, soap, paper goods, garbage bags, etc.).  Many times we buy gringo foods at gringo prices and, obviously, this would be a perfect place to economize!
  • Lessons: Spanish lessons and, most recently, the services of a personal trainer. These are intermittent costs. We don’t incur them every month.
  • Meals Out: Any meals eaten outside the home including drinks and snacks. The figure is a real eye-opener!Traditional Mayan Fish
  • Miscellaneous:  A sampling of expenditures reveals moneys that were spent for laundry, haircuts, massages, entertainment, a travel alarm clock, housekeeper gratuities, baby & graduation & quinceanera gifts, volunteer supplies, replacement computer mouse, fees to use public bathrooms and handouts to street beggars.
  • Online: This includes fees paid online for e-books, I-tunes, Netflix, Hot Spot (our virtual private network), Dropbox, Skype membership, etc.Vista Mombacho
  • Rent:  This year we paid for lodging in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Our most common lodging is at B&B’s but this also covers home-stays and house-sitting and includes any utility costs when paid.
  • Tours/Excursions: Entrance fees for museums, archeological sites, historic sites such as cathedrals, national parks, guided tours and the like.  Also included are entrance or exit fees at border crossing between countries.Tuk-Tuks Santa Elena, GTM
  • Transportation: If it moves and we’re on board it’s included. That means tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, shuttle, panga, launcha, ferry and airplane fees.

We’re not absolutely convinced that this budgetary spreadsheet is necessary or advisable. But we’re finding it interesting to see how we spend our money and tracking our expenses has become a habit. So, we reckon we’ll keep at it for another year and see what changes in our spending behavior…

Through the roof!

Through the roof!

 

 

 

 

Chillin’ In San Juan Del Sur

SJdS Welcome SignComing into the beach town of San Juan del Sur we were greeted by a vibrant psychedelic sign that announced that, yes indeed, we had arrived at our destination on the Pacific coast.

The beach at SJdSThe half-moon bay was ringed by golden sands and had sailboats, pleasure boats and local fishing vessels scattered across its surface.  Christ of the Mercy statueThe statue of Christ of the Mercy, the second largest statue of Jesus in the world, presided over the bay from the towering cliffs at the north end benignly gazing down upon the water and blessing the fishermen.  The street was lined from one end to the other with restaurants, bars and hotels.  It was easy to see that the once peaceful fishing town, now consisting of roughly 18,000 residents, had become a popular vacation place attracting both Nicaraguan vacationers and foreign tourists.  This beach was a beautiful place for those who wanted to walk along the shore, swim or splash in the waves and just chill. Other beaches to the north and south offer surfing and lessons for those so inclined.South view

Over the last few years the picturesque and colorful town has begun to attract a fair-sized expat and foreign retirement community who came to visit and decided to stay for the laid-back beach vibe, low-cost of living and gorgeous scenery.  Entrepreneurs are building small retirement developments and condos, owning and operating surf shops, fishing tours, restaurants and hotels.Street scene and construction

Expats are always a varied lot and one eccentric resident immediately caught our attention as we were walking down the street.  the Monkey ladyDressed entirely in a leopard print ensemble complete with a flapped hat and matching scooter the deeply tanned, shoe-leather-skinned woman was walking two golden-haired spider monkeys.  We asked her if we could take a picture of the monkeys (but really she was the prize!) and for a charge of 20 Cordoba which she justified as food money for her companions, she allowed us to take a few photos.  When asked about the monkeys she explained  that they were “rescue monkeys” saved after their mother had been shot and killed.

One afternoon during our visit we climbed into the back of a pick-up and took seats upon the benches lining the cargo bed. The boards of the surfing students were strapped on the top rack. We, sans boards, brought water, sun screen and our anticipation of a lovely afternoon and headed for Playa Hermosa, a secluded beach a few kilometers south of town. After driving a short distance we turned off the highway and passed, for a fee, through a locked gate and down a rocky, rutted, shaded and densely forested road, which was scraped into the hillsides that led to the beach. It was easy to imagine that during a downpour it could become a quagmire of mud.  This hard-scrabble track had been punched in by the developers of the hit television series Survivor a few years earlier. There was a comfortable little camp at the end of the road equipped with a restaurant, hostel and several palapas. We had arrived at a backpacker destination and the hard-bodies, beer and rum were all on display in relaxed and convivial abundance. Even the fact that one of our party stepped on a small stingray and received a nasty sting did not dampen the mood the afternoon.

The Bay of SJdS from the maleconBack in San Juan del Sur, while talking with a couple of expats who are financially involved in the community, there seemed to be an agreement that this small village was quite likely on a trajectory that would take it to a level of development similar to Jaco, Costa Rica. The pronouncement was neither laudatory nor derogatory, it was simply the educated guess of two longer term residents who had watched development in other Latin American countries. Change is a constant and the haunts of the backpackers do not remain their exclusive domain for long. This retreat is fast becoming a fixture on the gringo trail as word of this sea-side paradise spreads.San Juan del Sur bus

A Fiesta in Barrio Pantanal

Barrio Pantanal The New York Times reported that in Latin America the rate of population growth has dropped dramatically recently; Nicaragua is no exception. During the last two generations urbanization, increased access to health care and women’s empowerment has translated into smaller families. Barrio PantanalBut it was hard to reconcile that account with the reality of barrio Pantanal, a neighborhood south of Granada’s mercado district. It is not a place that taxis like to go because many of the streets are not paved but rather are dirt roads or foot paths. Jim, our host, explained that of the roughly 11,000 people in Pantanal, 7,000 are children 15 years and under. In this neighborhood, many of the residents are squatters. They live on vacant land which they use until they are evicted and required to move to the next make-shift shelter.Barrio Pantanal

Feeling a little at loose ends for Christmas day we made inquiries regarding volunteer opportunities and leaped at the chance to spend the afternoon in barrio Pantanal helping Education Plus Nicaragua with a fiesta and celebration for the children it serves and including the folks in the neighborhood.  We arrived at the festival location, a modest home with neatly swept concrete and dirt floors and two newly built latrines out back.  waiting for airThe family who lives in the home has generously allowed the NGO (non-governmental organization) to use it on weekdays until a permanent home for the school is found.  Education Plus provides a much-needed nutrition program to combat the malnutrition and hunger that many of the children experience by offering a free lunch and dinner to its students.  The non-profit organization believes that children who speak English have the best chance to escape a life of limited options and poverty so high priority is placed upon teaching English as well as after-school tutoring and help with homework.  The volunteers also work on teaching and improving socialization skills such as sharing, taking turns and playing cooperatively in organized recreation programs.Two Princesses

The yard and roadway in front of the home were filled with excited children.  A handful of adult volunteers of many nationalities were sprinkled throughout the crowd.  Antonio & MelissaThe children, many in their best party clothes, were eyeing two huge inflatable bounce houses, a table filled with soft drinks, popcorn and cotton candy machines and piñatas. The dozen or so volunteers, some already working with the program, were there to enjoy a Christmas fiesta along with the children of the neighborhood.

The five hours passed quickly for it was mostly chatting briefly with individual children, helping to keep games moving along, making sure every child had their turn at the various activities and doing whatever looked like needed to be done.  The children were having a great time; there was laughter and smiles galore. Sipping sodasMuch food was consumed. There was none of the usual fighting and bickering associated with almost three-hundred kids in close proximity to one another.  Looking to the east you could see where the pavement ended and the dirt track began. You knew that the poverty and hunger were waiting, as they always are. But for that Christmas celebration, for that sun dappled afternoon, it was fiesta time.Howdy hi!

La Bomba: A Not So Silent Night

Fireworks-A rocket is launchedGranada took on a new personality for Christmas Eve.  Rather than a handful of people sitting on their stoops to chit-chat while taking in the sights and sounds of the city’s night life, the doors and windows of the colonial homes on block after block were open displaying their Christmas decorations and lights for all to see. People congregated in groups, large and small, in front of the homes. Generations of families and friends greeted the strollers with “Feliz Navidad”.  Kids vied for space in the streets with the adults to shoot off fireworks or launch the numerous types “bombas”,  the explosives and sky rockets.Lighting a bomba The truly awe-inspiring missiles were those which were constructed locally using dynamite with prima-cord fuses. These brutes were wrapped in brown paper twists, placed into an upright, steel pipe-stand on the street and then lit with a long taper. The wee children, of course, were relegated to the curbs and steps to play with sparklers and ladyfingers.

Girls & SparklersAs we were walking by the home of the Arana family we stopped to admire the multitude of lights and glimpsed a beautifully decorated tree in the back of the living room.Decorated for Christmas The matriarch, Fatima, invited us to come inside to better appreciate their efforts. The home, built in the Spanish colonial style around an interior courtyard, was a lavish display of twinkling lights and ribbon wrapped columns.  We were given a tour of the home by one of the daughters and admired each room festively decorated for the season. Later that evening, when  we passed by the home again as we were walking to our house, we greeted the patriarch of the family, Emilio, sitting at the entry way overseeing  his grandchildren setting off their firecrackers in the street.

Casa de FamiliasThe fireworks had been building towards a crescendo all day. In the early part of the day the reports were sporadic and tentative. By mid-afternoon they were reliably steady and increased hourly as the night progressed. It was not a coordinated effort; it was thousands of households independently and simultaneously asserting their right to celebrate in the loudest, most frenetic manner possible. At midnight, the culmination of the evening, the cacophony was majestic. From every side, on all the streets and walkways in the barrio, from over the garden walls fireworks exploded with abandon; the skyline a strobe, pulsating, white glow.  The occasional colored skyrocket only accentuated the bright flash of gunpowder with its resounding report. The angels would know that Granada was joyously paying homage to the Christ child.

We awakened on Christmas morning to a neighborhood disturbed only intermittently by the occasional sound of fireworks. When we left our home at mid-morning Christmas day, the city was quiet for Christmas is a day to be with the family. The only evidence of the assault on the senses that had transpired only hours before were the neat piles of paper residue left behind by the street sweepers to be hauled away later that morning. The city, its energy spent, had returned to normalcy.Sparkler

Out of Touch: Blissfully Unaware of the Christmas Ballyhoo

Nativity scene on Big CornThis is our second Christmas on the road and, as we return to Granada for the third time in as many months from our sojourn in the Corn Islands, we realize how out of touch with the holiday season we are. This is the week before Christmas and we’ve been happily removed from the Christmas hoopla. 

Minimalist decorThe weather’s hot, there are no television advertisements (indeed, no TV where we’ve been staying), no canned and cheesy Christmas carols blaring from store speakers urging us to Buy! Buy! Buy!  Ads that assail (and, I have to admit) entice us everywhere we turn.  Aside from the flood of email ads hawking holiday wares and specials which we delete each day we can choose to ignore the frantic commercial frenzy and preparations for the big day almost totally.

A Miskita church

A Miskita church

Which, and we apologize beforehand to all you Christmas season lovers, is exactly what we want.  No pushing and shoving crowds, no traffic snarls, no obligatory Christmas parties where overly exuberant drinking leads to unintended consequences.

A tipsy SantaInstead, we’ll spend a quiet Christmas with a friend we met in Merida, Mexico last year and new friends we’ve met in Granada.    We’ll call family to catch up on the news and activities of the day and, except for online gift cards, congratulate ourselves on our wise spending while trying hard not to miss those we love most dearly.

Seasons Greetings to all of you who read our blog.  If you are a Christmas lover enjoy the holiday.  If you’re not, get through it!  And to all of you, our wishes for a safe and sane New Year.A different Christmas tree

Barefootin’ And Driftin’…Slow Days On Big Corn Island

Main Street - Brig BayEach day unfolds slowly here on the island.  Long before the first glimmers of light we hear the big rooster who lives behind our little abode greeting the day.   He seems to take great pleasure in moving outside around our bungalow and trumpeting his wake-up call from underneath each window until he’s satisfied that he’s been heard.   The unseen birds then begin their chorus of songs taking turns to break out into lyrical solos before blending back into the cacophony.  And always, in the background, the sound of the surf – some days a gentle swoosh and others a crashing roar.

Our panga with AlejandroOne day we climbed into a panga with two Creole fishermen and Steve and Toni, a couple of new friends, and slowly trolled along the rocky cliff faces for barracuda before setting off across the water in search of kingfish and yellowtail snapper.  The panga, a local vessel,  lacked  Coast Guard approved life vests aboard but there was a bucket filled with coconuts to quench our thirst. line-fishing & drinking coconut milkThe trick was to hack off the outside skin with a sharp machete, poke a quarter-sized hole into the point and then savor the contents.  In between  practicing line- fishing and sharing the two battered poles between the four of us,  we drifted slowly through the morning, hypnotized by the movement of the waves in various shades of blue and not bothered appreciably by our failure to catch anything but a couple of pan-size perch.north end of Big Corn Island

Bottle mosaicsAnother day, we took the ferry across the water to Little Corn Island and spent a few hours strolling around the picturesque and quaint small island, admiring a little store whose walls were built from glass bottles and mortared together into a colorful mosaic and eating excellent kingfish tacos for lunch at a lodge overlooking a coral reef before returning to our own island.

Every Sunday there’s a baseball game in the corrugated roofed stadium whose fences are papered with colorful advertisements.  For an admission price of 20 cordobas (less than $1) you can while away the early afternoon hours rooting for your favorite team, applauding standout plays and listening to the booing and cursing in the colorful Caribe dialect as abuse is heaped upon an unfortunate player.  Reggae and classic country western music blasts from the overhead speakers and occasionally, a member of the audience will stand and shimmy a few dance moves to celebrate an especially good play.  A woman sells a little spicy and delicious meat-filled, half-moon shaped pie called Caribe patties and sings out “pat-TEE, pat-TEE, pat-TEE” as she walks the aisles.  After she makes her sale to us she proudly confides that the young man at bat, number  11, is her grandson but “He ain’t playin’ so good today”. Indeed, he went 0 for 3 for the afternoon.

swimming at the municipal wharfgirl with a beautiful smileAnd always, there’s swimming and snorkeling in the sea, walking the almost deserted road around and about the island, watching the children laughing and at play, poking among the various fruits and vegetables on sale for the tastiest, exchanging greetings and pleasantries with the locals, napping occasionally and reading book after book.  It reminds me of the slow and lazy, endless summer days of childhood; a feeling and memory to be savored.Three kids

Off The Gringo Trail: Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Municipal WharfBig Corn Island, just a smidgen off the gringo trail, is a conundrum. It has more than three times the land mass of its sister, Little Corn Island. It has five times the population (approximately 6500 versus 1200); it has the only airport and pier for transporting goods, services and tourists from the mainland. It even has the higher land form; Pleasant Hill (371 feet) as opposed to the stunted Lookout Point (125 feet). Yet a full 75% of the tourists who arrive on Big Corn Island depart almost immediately for Little Corn Island. The larger ferries even coordinate their departure times to coincide with the arrival of the twice daily La Costena Air flights from Managua to facilitate this exodus.

Brig BayOne result of this out-flux of tourists is that the service industry, which only tentatively began in the 1970’s and was stunted by the government’s disregard for the area until recently, is still in its infancy. This fact became obvious later when we realized that the largest hotel on the island boasted only twenty – count em’, twenty – cabanas. Little Corn has done a much better job of recruiting the tourist dollar with the hostels and hotels, SCUBA, snorkeling and sport fishing segments.  Tourism plays a small part in Big Corn’s economy with fishing –  shrimp, lobster and a variety of commercial fish – as the major economic engine of the island.Brig Bay Big Corn Island

Market near the commisary This reality was impressed upon us immediately when we went to pick up a few groceries in the late afternoon following our arrival on the island. Our host, Don, had advised us to go to the Commissary and the vegetable stand nearby to purchase some basic provisions for meals.  Once in the Commissary we observed dismally that half of the shelves were filled with cleaning supplies, paper goods, toiletries and the other half a random collection of canned and packaged foods.  To our questions of “Do you have any ground coffee, eggs, and butter the answer was an unapologetic “No, not today”.  The coffee was instant, the cheese American Singles, the bread a few odds and ends of older rolls and pastries.  We walked out with a small bag of oatmeal, pasta, some salad dressing (in the hopeful event that we’d find lettuce or vegetables) and a can of tuna.  No beans; none, not red beans, not black beans, not refried beans, not even bulk beans!  If possible, the vegetable shop a few buildings down was even less promising:  meager sunlight filtered through spaces in the roof to dimly illuminate boxes of limp, bruised, overripe and moldy offerings that we sifted through hoping that some strange insect wasn’t hiding in the box along with the food.  We arrived back at our abode dejectedly wondering just what we were going to do for grits for the next month.

Melody's Fortunately, Helen, the cook and housekeeper for our hosts, escorted us around the island the following morning. We went to Melody’s, a store with no outside advertisement for the uninitiated visitor, which had a fairly large assortment of groceries. Helen then showed us the Wharf Store, across the street from the municipal wharf, which was best stocked on Friday and Saturday after the ferry arrived with fresh provisions.

vegetable store by Nick'sShe showed us a restaurant where we could purchase freshly made tortillas. And we subsequently discovered other little tiendas where we could find foods that worked into our daily diet. It turned out that shopping was not all that complex, it just took some social interaction, a few stops and a bit of south of the border patience.

The wharf store

Rainbows and Stars: The Corn Islands

Nicaragua mapThere are two ways to get to Islas Del Maiz or the Corn Islands (known as Big and Little) which sit off the eastern coast of Nicaragua in the Caribbean. You can take a bus from Managua to Rama (about 6 hours), a panga (boat) to Bluefields (about 2 hours) and then, either stay a night or two there in that less-than-thriving metropolis or hope to time the arrival to catch the twice weekly ferry (a 5 hour trip) to Big Corn Island.  Or you can take one of the twice daily flights by La Costena Air from Managua to Big Corn Island. The direct flight is just over an hour and is reasonably priced at $175 round trip. We opted, for the first time, to discard our by land only, budget-traveler philosophy and flew to the islands.

Loading the bags

A rainstorm had just passed and, upon our arrival at the very small island airport, we stepped out onto the dirt (mud) parking area.  The dense, moist air enveloped us, rain drops sparkling upon the leaves.  In the distance was a perfect whole rainbow stretched from end to end, an uplifting and auspicious beginning for our month long stay on Corn Island.

A little shoppingTwo or three taxis were lined up and a very large man with a friendly smile and outstretched hand introduced himself in a lilting Caribbean accent as Puma.  It was a pleasure to listen to him as he drove and spoke about the island in a deep-toned, melodious voice with the words flowing around us; some in English and the rest in a barely decipherable island creole.  He deposited us at our roof-top apartment called the Crow’s Nest which had screened and shuttered windows overlooking an empty and pristine golden sand beach with one row of foamy breaking waves and the turquoise water stretching to the horizon.

the beach and pangasDarkness arrives about 5:30 at this time of the year in Nicaragua so we moved quickly. After meeting the owners of our apartment, we dumped our one suitcase and backpacks and hurried to a little store for a few staples for breakfast.

The Island Style Beach Bar and Reastaurant Then we set off in search of dinner, walking in the dark down the dirt road with flashlights pointing ahead trying to avoid the large mud puddles.  We arrived at the Island Style Beach Bar and Restaurant which sits next to the beach, empty except for one other couple, with classic old-style country and western music reverberating from the speakers.  Our meal of chicken, homemade plantain chips and coleslaw arrived on island time; the meal good and the setting tranquil.  That is until an apparition appeared halfway through our dinner emerging from the shadows of the jungle behind the restaurant, wielding a machete a machete dangling from his hand. He ambled in, sat down a few tables from us, ordered a beer and listened to the country western music for a bit before dozing off.

We walked back down the dirt road in the velvety darkness talking softly and laughing over the thought of a man walking into a restaurant in the U.S. carrying a machete.  On the left was the sea with the sound of the waves filling the night.  We turned off our small flashlights for several minutes, standing in the middle of the muddy road, turning slowly. . and saying “oh” ….  our faces upturned in wonder like children, gazing at the stars that filled the night sky.

View from Long Bay

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica: Comfortable In A Familiar Sense

Jaco Beach looking northSome places are comfortable in a familiar sense. It’s not a feeling of déjà vu – not having been there before, but one of replication – having been someplace similar to it previously. That summed up the experience of Jaco quite neatly.  Jaco was like being at a surf-side town in the States.

Mar ArenasThe condominium where we stayed was a well-maintained, horse-shoe shaped affair, only thirty-two units, wrapped around a large pool on lushly landscaped grounds that would have done itself proud in any US beach town. It was bounded by privacy walls with a locked gate and carport, manned by a security guard and sat directly on the seashore on the quiet south end of Jaco Beach. The unit had recently been renovated and sported a kitchen backsplash between the granite counter and custom-made cabinets that was a vibrant, unique and playful mosaic scene hand-wrought by one of the owners who’s an artist.  It was a comfortable, modern affair with wi-fi, flat screen cable TV, ceran stove top, hot and cold water throughout and, the epitome of modernity, a commode that accepted toilet paper.

Jaco BeachJaco BeachWe were ensconced here as a reward by our patrons for whom we had house-sat for two weeks in Atenas. In recognition of our services while tending to their home and holding the pet carnage to a minimum of one prized hen, we were given the opportunity to recuperate in this sea-side paradise and go to sleep listening to the sound of breaking waves.

Jaco's main dragJaco itself is a recent affair having come of age as one of the premier surfing beaches in Costa Rica. For two-and-a-half miles the black sand beach slopes gently out into the Pacific. There is a steady stream of breakers which, while not large, are consistent. Surfing schools set up shop on the beach under canopies and provide instruction and board rentals to the hard-body twenty-somethings that come to learn and enjoy the waves.

Jaco's main dragThe town of roughly 10,000 souls is laid out behind the beach in a long strip between the surf and the coastal highway in the lush, verdant tropical forest. For all intents and purposes, it is a modern tourist town that would be at home on any US coast with similar price tags for both goods and real estate.  As in the US, SUV’s are the vehicles of choice. Chicken buses were conspicuously absent, replaced by Mercedes and Toyota buses as the most common form of public conveyance. Aside from the language and the currency, the modern restaurants, tour agencies, hotels and souvenir shops felt like they could be in Anywhere, USA.

Jaco's main dragIn this familiar setting we experienced our first encounter with crime since we’ve been travelling in Latin America. We had gone to eat an early dinner with Mario, our host, and some of the other home owners of the condominium who had just concluded an annual meeting. After the meal we went to climb back into his SUV, walked a few steps back and forth in puzzlement and… the vehicle was gone – vanished –disappeared! There were patrons of the restaurant sitting at sidewalk tables but no one heard or saw anything suspicious. The police were called, reports filed, insurance claims initiated but it was all with a sense of futility.  The damage had been done and, most likely, the vehicle wouldn’t be recovered. It was perhaps fitting that it happened in Jaco. In this modern town, in this modern country, the old crime of boosting cars on a Saturday night was reminiscent of home. As I said; comfortable in a familiar sense.Sunset

Two Cats, Two Chickens: Living The Life In Costa Rica

The best weather in the world

Everyday, there's a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

Everyday, there’s a friendly game of checkers to be found near the park

“Vivir la vida” means living the life and that’s what we figured we were doing as we headed for Atenas, Costa Rica and a new housesitting gig we had arranged a few months beforeThe picturesque town of Atenas, reputedly named by a National Geographic writer as having the “best climate in the world”, is surrounded by mountains and coffee plantations. It’s a popular place for North American retirees who are drawn to the area by the climate, the area’s beauty and its proximity to the Pacific coast and  San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica.  Also high on the list of things to like about Atenas is the genuine friendliness of the people.  And, although it’s a small town, (approximately 27,000) it has numerous westernized amenities.

Atenas street scene

Home maintenanceWe met the homeowners, Mario and Christina.  Their abode, behind a traditional privacy wall, was large and comfortable and located in a “Tica” (local) neighborhood. Inside it had many original paintings and mosaics that Christina, an artist, had created. And, oh joy! hot water in both the kitchen and bathroom.  The tap water was potable so, not only could we wash our fruits and vegetables in it, we could drink it as well.  We spent a couple of days with Mario and Christina learning the idiosyncrasies of their home and the basic layout of Atenas.  Our responsibilities included caring for two cats (Miles and Chunche) and two chickens (Blue and Dixie).  Additionally, there was swimming pool maintenance and composting of organic food and yard wastes, cleaning the patio and sidewalk, picking up the mail from the post office, vehicle checks and emailing our hosts every few days to discuss any problems or assure them that we were caring for all they loved diligently.Miles & Chunche

And then…one of the chickens died.  Our worse fear as house and pet sitters is of a pet death or some home catastrophe that we might have prevented.  Granted, Blue was limping around the yard in the days before our hosts left but… We alerted Mario and Christina a couple of days after they left that Blue was ailing and did not want to leave the chicken coop and that we had placed her feed near her.  A couple of days went by with her continuing to eat but, one morning she was dead. How to tell someone their pet had died?  Tough but we just had to suck up being the bearers of bad news and figure out where to bury her…

La FeriaOther than poor Blue…the rest of our house and pet sitting job went smoothly with us enjoying the run of a well-equipped home, cable television, fast internet and, such luxury, a pool.  Each Friday we’d walk to the local feria (farmers’ market) and join a throng of smiling shoppers looking at the artful arrangements of fruits and vegetables, flowers, breads and baked goods and a small selection of handmade crafts. Eventually we’d make our purchases and take our tasty acquisitions back to our abode to enjoy over the next few days. It seems that vivir la vida is really what it could be all about…La feria

 

Granada: Grande Dame Of Nicaragua

Street scene

Repairing and  refurbishing  a building in the city center

Repairing tile and stucco on
a building in the city center

Entering Granada by bus we looked out the windows to see a colonial city with multicolored buildings, clay tiled or tin covered roofs and windows and doors behind distinctive, decorative grillwork. The streets were clean and overall there was a feeling of purposeful energy that seemed to be missing from its tired neighbor, Leon.  Granted, unlike Leon, Granada had emerged unscathed (physically, at least) from the devastation caused by the civil war.  Another important factor has been the influx of foreign aid which began in 1990 to restore, refurbish and preserve this historic city.  The charm of the city draws tourists from all over the world and there is a sizable community of expats who have decided to make Granada their home. In turn, the money from the tourists helps fuel the relative prosperity, in contrast to the rest of the country.

Stopping to chatWhile Granada is a relatively affluent city it still resides in a poor Latino nation; the duality is never far from the surface.  The churches and cathedrals, the parks and the city center all wear new paint and stucco and tiles; the restaurants vie for cordobas with varied menus, the horse-drawn cabs stand spit-shined with the horses well-groomed.  But wander into the streets in the early morning or walk the barrios away from the city center and the flip side slips through the filter. Here you find the use of human power to push and pull carts, to clean city streets, to construct major buildings. It is the face of the country. It is a reality that underlies much of the beauty and charm through which we travel.

pick-up baseball gameFor entertainment, baseball seems to be a popular sport and after a Sunday walk to the shores of Lake Nicaragua we happened upon a ballpark set up with four diamonds for intramural play among city leagues. The games were quite spirited with a crowd, both in the stands and on the adjacent sidewalks, ready to loudly heckle any errors or disputed calls. Pick-up ball games are also regular features on the streets in the city itself as vehicle traffic can be worked around in the interest of a game of work-up or five man sides. Of course, futbol or soccer is common as this is a Latin American nation and soccer fields dot the city barrios and kids block off streets to play the game.   On one particular street there is even a basketball hoop cemented into the sidewalk for a pickup game.pick-up game of futbol

And  the streets come alive in the evenings when the day’s heat abates following the afternoon rain; there may even be a cooling breeze.  People take an evening stroll or sit on their stoops.  Many times household chairs will be brought out to the sidewalk for a more comfortable resting place  to watch the traffic, exchange a “buenas noches” with neighbors and other passersby and chat amiably with each other.  Many times the doors to the homes will be open offering a glimpse into other families and lives.   It seems to be such an old-fashioned, pleasant, enjoyable  pastime: celebrating a day’s work done, talking to family and participating in a neighborhood ritual.

Afternoon storm clouds gather over La Catedral  (Lake Nicaragua in background)

Afternoon storm clouds gather over La Catedral (Lake Nicaragua in background)

The Man In Black: Sandino Watches Over Managua

Augusto SandinoThe silhouette dominated the sky line as we rounded a corner coming into Managua, Nicaragua, the capital. It was the iconic shadowed contour of Augusto C. Sandino, a Nicaraguan general, revolutionary and leader of the rebellion between 1927 and 1933 against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua. He was referred to as a “bandit” by the United States government but his exploits made him a national hero (even to this day) throughout much of Latin America. He was assassinated in 1934 following the withdrawal of American troops . This particular statue was located in the Parque Nacional Historico on the hills overlooking the city and Lake Managua along with Loma de Tiscopa, the notorious prison of torture and murder for rebels and political prisoners used by the Somoza family dictatorship until the 1979 revolution.

An unusual pairing

An unusual pairing

From the heights of Managua, the yellow sculptured trees can be seen that were dedicated in July, 2013, to commemorate the 59th birthday of Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan President.  The imaginative trees were a gift from his ally, President Daniel Ortega (whose name might be familiar to those watching the U.S. news in the 1980’s during the Iran-Contra affair).  These rather whimsical structures lining the Avenida Bolivar did not quite mesh with the stern visage of Hugo, especially when mounted on his psychedelic base. Nearer the malecon (walkway along the lake) these trees were paired with the silhouette of Augusto Sandino, but this time in bright yellow.

Sandino, the icon

Sandino, the icon

The old cathedral, damaged but still standing

However, revolutionary zeal was not all that was on display in Managua. We also visited the old and new cathedrals. The old colonial Catedral was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1972, along with much of the old city center, which killed an estimated 5,000 residents, injured 20,000 and left 250,000 people homeless. It alone of all the ruins remains, adjacent to the Palacio Nacional de Cultura, the national cultural museum. The interior of the church is now empty and unused; a church without a heart in a city without a center.

Outside of the new cathedral -what does the roof look like to you?

We also visited the new cathedral, the Catedral Metropolitana, constructed in 1993, which is completely unique when compared to the more traditional, heavily decorated architecture  of Latin American cathedrals. The sixty-three cupolas (resembling egg cartons or breasts depending on one’s point of view) signify the country’s sixty-three Catholic cathedrals.

The New Cathedral

The interior might be described as austere and industrial yet the lighting from the cupolas and the sparse use of paint and decoration makes the interior quietly inviting and respectfully humble.

Our day ended with a tour of the National Cultural Museum. Despite some very interesting displays, the visit got off to a tenuous start when our guide informed us that the fee for taking pictures was an additional $80 Cordobas, on top of the ex-pat fee of $80 Cordobas per person. We declined the fee and politely advised the guide that we would be fine by ourselves. Giovanni, our driver, huddled with the museum guide and returned to explain that there was a misunderstanding: there was no fee for photographs and the guide’s services were required as we were allotted a thirty minute viewing tour of the museum. So, with our docent in place, we took a rather rushed tour of the facility. Despite the uninspiring ending to the day, we were impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of Managua and the overall friendliness of the people that we met.

Trees line a Managua avenue

Trees along Bolivar avenue

There’s Art In Them There Hills – The Pueblos Near Granada

Making a pot

We had been in Granada, Nicaragua for a few days when we arranged for a trip to the pueblos in the hill country to the northwest of the city. We had read of a couple of these villages or heard of them while visiting Leon and others were recommended by our local contacts. So it was, on another bright and sunny Wednesday morning, we set out to see the artists’ villages.

Hammocks at the Masaya mercado

Handwoven hammocks

We’ve enjoyed visiting the  mercados found in each colonial city and we had strolled through the largest market in Granada on Tuesday during an afternoon walk. However, we  noticed and remarked upon the fact that the Granada market was lacking the abundance of hand crafted items that usually fill a substantial portion of the stalls.

Entry to the Masaya mercado

outside the Masaya mercado

The conundrum was answered first thing the following morning. Masaya is billed as the “Artisans Capital of Nicaragua”; this statement was repeated later by others in Managua and Granada. The weavings and pottery absent in Granada during our market tour were found here in the Masaya Mercado. It is contained within a walled compound in the city and is filled with traditional woven clothing, beautiful handmade leather shoes, boots, handbags and cowboy hats,  colorful tiles and gorgeous pottery, handsome hardwood bowls, chairs and other furnishings both unadorned and painstakingly, intricately carved, and paintings by numerous artists. Because we visited in the opening hours of the mid-morning and during the low season, the aisles were unusually empty, but this only added to the discounts the vendors were offering for their wares.

Handmade footwear

Wood fired kiln

Wood fired kiln

After wandering throughout the Mercado, we gathered our lone purchase, a bottle of local honey to share with our Granada host, and headed for San Juan de Oeste, a mecca for pottery. Some San Juan pottery was shown in the market stalls in Masaya and much more was on display in the shops of the village. That morning we visited the taller (workshop) of Valentin Lopez, a potter who works with natural dyes and wood fired kilns. His workshop and showroom also serve as his home, where his sons apprentice in the trade, so we were appreciative of the hospitality of the family in explaining the process involved in the creation of both his utilitarian and decorative art. This visit was perhaps the high-point of the day but it evoked the cruelest feelings when trying to explain to the family why not even the sturdiest or smallest of the ceramic pieces was appropriate for our limited luggage.

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

A fired and polished pot using natural pigments

Santa Catarina flower  shop

A short tour of Pueblo Catarina was sufficient to establish it as the gardening center for the region. In fact, Santa Catarina and the surrounding countryside provide the majority of the bedding plants and cut flowers for Granada and Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua. The small puebla vibrated with the colors of the numerous blooms. At the top of this hilly city was the Mirador Catarina, an overlook for Laguna Apoyo, a warm, fresh water lake in a volcanic caldera.

Laguna de Apoyo

The drive down to Laguna Apoyo took us into the Reservada Nacional, the protected area around the lake. There are several hostels on the edge of the lake, a Spanish language school and a few private homes, but most of the land on the hillsides is undeveloped. And judging by the large family of spider monkeys which we spied near the water’s edge, the forest remains healthy in these hills above Granada.

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization