Monthly Archives: October 2013

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

The Peace Project-hostel, school & volunteer organization

By Richard and Anita, October 2013

 

“Don’t Know Much About History”…Leon, Politics And The Civil War

1786 La Iglesia Recoleccion

1786 –  La Iglesia Recoleccion

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

Our guide, Juan, joined at age 14 and fought in the revolution in 1979

As travelers we prepare for each new location or country by breaking out the maps and researching the history.  The theme of “La Revolucion” is present in most of the Latin American nations where we have been, harkening back to the battles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But Nicaragua has its own unique perspective. For, unlike Guatemala which fought a civil war for thirty-six years only to arrive at an armistice, Nicaragua experienced a real and successful revolution in 1979 with the overthrow of the  Somoza regime by the Sandinistas.

A street mural

A street mural

Leon, being the intellectual capital of the nation, has a special relationship with that historical period. It has always been the city favored by the more liberal of the country’s political class. The city figured heavily in the revolution, led by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional or the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. There was fierce street by street fighting as each side sought the upper hand. In a desperate move, the Somoza government resorted to bombing the city. The Sandinistas eventually gained the advantage and held the city until the ultimate defeat of the Somoza regime.

FSLN Banner

The Museo de la Revolucion, housed fittingly in the Palacio del Gubierno which belonged to the deposed Anastasia Somoza, is staffed by veterans of the conflict and contains a small collection of memorabilia. The residence still bears many the scars of the fighting including bullet pocked  walls.  Elsewhere in Leon is the old 21st Garrison, the prison used by the Somoza government at the time of the revolution, which depicts many of the brutal interrogation tactics of the discredited regime. Near the city center there are a number of street murals, some covering extensive portions of city blocks, honoring the martyrs of the revolution.

Pulling a cart

With Leon’s history – it was the capital city founded by Francisco Cordoba in 1524 and a major colonial center –  and the recent revolutionary events, the city comes down on the proletarian side of the equation. It is a nitty-gritty sort of place and does not display the grandeur of Managua or Granada. Over-laying the ancient churches and the colonial architecture there is a glimpse of the working class nature of the city. Pedi-cabs replace tuk-tuks for cheap personal transportation. Horse drawn and human-powered wagons provide a means of moving goods within the city as well as from farm to market.

Homemade cart pulled by a horse

Adding to the impression of the proletarian nature of the city is the number of shops given over to the sale of used clothing. This feeling was further underscored by the dearth of restaurants; even the “tipico” eateries which cater to the local population were not in abundance around the city center. It appeared that whether buying or selling, money was in short supply.

Despite its relative humbleness, the good will of the people was obvious and abundant. It did not appear that hospitality was a casualty of the conflict.

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

Getting To Leon, Nicaragua: Another Muggy (But Not So Buggy) Location

Some trips probably seem long before they even start!  (Leon, Nicaragua)

Some trips probably seem long before they even start! (Leon, Nicaragua)

We left Utila at the end of September and took the early ferry to the La Ceiba dock where we met Omar who would transport us on our journey from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Omar was an enterprising and entertaining young Honduran who spoke fluent English. However,  he was still working the bugs out of the direct shuttle company he had launched a couple of months before which filled a transportation niche on the gringo trail between the northern coast of Honduras and the colonial city of Leon in north-western Nicaragua. A late start was occasioned by a wait for additional passengers and a heated discussion over the wisdom of lashing backpacks and suitcases to the roof of the van with no luggage carrier or tie downs. This resulted in another delay while we waited for a second vehicle and driver to accommodate the extra passengers and luggage. Once underway the ride went smoothly. 

Until … we were stopped at a military checkpoint in Honduras and Omar realized he’d left his driver’s license at home.  A gratuity of about $10 USD resulted in the okay to proceed but we spent the rest of our time in Honduras dodging military checkpoints and roadblocks. Omar picked up a friend along the way with a driver’s license who drove the van across the Honduras-Nicaraguan border. Finally, after our nineteen hour journey, we arrived safely in Leon in the dead of night.

Pedicab - another form of transportation

Pedicab – another form of transportation

The largest Cathedral in Central America

La Catedral

The original city of Leon was established in 1523 and, after Managua, is the second largest city in Nicaragua.  It’s an important industrial and agricultural hub with a picturesque, traditional city at its historic heart that is easy to traverse by foot. Most visitors come to Leon to see the colonial architecture which includes the 18th century cathedral, the largest in Central America. Additionally, it‘s the intellectual center of the nation; a fact bolstered by the presence of the national university.

This time of the year is known as “muggy and buggy” and one thing the guidebooks emphasized  was the oppressive heat in Leon.  We, of course, figured that the heat and humidity couldn’t be any worse than Utila but, in that, we were wrong.  Each day we arose, showered and then sweated through our clothing in a matter of minutes while walking around the city. Even when sitting in our B&B with the fans whirring, we would feel a trickle of sweat running down our backs.

Reminiscent of Ghost Busters - the fumigator's equipment

Ghost Busters flashback – the fumigator’s equipment

As for the bugs, we witnessed the Leon bug eradication program in action – weirdly reminiscent of  a scene from the old movie Ghost Busters.  First thing one morning, and later that day throughout the city, a couple of young men with gas masks and backpacks carrying the gas-powered, insecticide applicators appeared to fumigate our premises. We stood in the front courtyard while they walked from room to room spraying each area and, soon enough, clouds of noxious  fumes began roiling from the building.  Out of the fog appeared our fumigators wielding their strange weapons and promising that the premises were bug free for another few months.

The fumigator (in uniform)

The fumigator (in uniform)

By Anita and Richard, October, 2013

 

What We Fear Most or … Danger: Sidewalks Ahead!

Pick left or pick right...

Left or right?

Extensions for more obstructions

Extensions for more obstructions

Drug cartels, kidnapping, bribery, robbery, extortion, murder! These were all concerns expressed by our friends and relatives when we broached the subject of extended travel SOTB [south of the border]. Now admittedly, these are all legitimate worries. But, being the fuddy-duddies that we are we do not loiter in bars and cafes or parks much after 9:00 PM, pull out rolls of cash, flash lots of bling or explore neighborhoods that look sketchy or that we’ve been cautioned to avoid.

Makes sense to us...we think?

Going up?  Going down?

Watch your step!

Watch your step!

But honestly, no one warned us of the sidewalks. These pedestrian pathways designed to promote safety have caused us as much physical damage as Montezuma’s Revenge or the mosquitoes and sand flies. The sidewalks have been the cause of trips, slips, stubs and dings far out of proportion to their posted hazard. And this little talked about and unreported evil is nearly universal both in large cities and small towns throughout Latin America. No place we’ve visited has been exempt from the ravages of broken, uneven, malformed concrete, bricks or cobblestones, twisted and narrow steps, curbing that can be grotesquely elevated or nearly non-existent. It may be glossed over in the newest and trendiest of neighborhoods, but walk a few blocks and the scourge returns.

Around or about or through?

Around or about or through?

Now, there are sidewalks that are tastefully, even artfully, done and meticulously maintained. While we appreciate and celebrate their existence we don’t take them for granted as they are conspicuously uncommon.  They are usually associated with buildings that are well-maintained such as the central park, up-scale housing developments or fronting ritzy buildings.

But, as in the US, they are primarily bread-and-butter, utilitarian and functional except when they ain’t. And when they ain’t they can be accidents waiting to happen, annoying or, occasionally, amusing.

Squeeze through the opening and then walk at a slant!

Squeeze through the opening and then walk a little crooked

Watch your feet and head

Watch your feet and head

So next time someone you know or love proposes to venture SOTB be sure to warn them of the unknown dangers lurking under their feet.  Oh yeah, and while they’re gawking at the beautiful parks and churches ahead or  looking sideways into various businesses and stores remember to tell them to check occasionally for obstacles jutting out of buildings at shoulder and head level too!

By Richard and Anita, October, 2013

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways

City workers improving (?) the pedestrian walkways