Monthly Archives: November 2013

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

By Anita and Richard, November, 2013

 

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

By Richard and Anita, November, 2013

 

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

By Richard and Anita, November, 2103

 

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)

By Richard and Anita, November, 2013

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

By Richard and Anita,  November, 2013