Tag Archives: gringos in Nicaragua

Granada In The Rear View

Granada, Spain conjures up visions of the fabled history of Andalusia, the breath-taking magnificence of the Alhambra, the Moorish conquerors turned overlords.

La Catedral

La Catedral

But Granada, Nicaragua?  Before our Nicaragua sojourn our conversations with travelers suggested to us that we would prefer Leon, Granada’s sister city on Lake Managua, which is the larger of the two cities, the liberal bastion, the university town. Granada is smaller, more commercial, more conservative, favored by tourists seeking more amenities. We were fully prepared to be drawn more to Leon; so it came as somewhat of a surprise that we were captivated by Granada, Nicaragua.

The Old Hospital Ruins

The Old Hospital Ruins

In Granada the colonial architecture around the city is being refurbished and upgraded; its charm enhanced with each renovation. The city has begun to effectively lure the tourist – the more affluent class beyond the transient, back-packer crowd.

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Hotel on Avenida Calzada

Avenida Calzada, jutting out of Parque Central, is a vital, bustling, pedestrian thoroughfare crowded with restaurants catering to many tastes. The adjoining streets offer more eateries, watering holes, souvenir shops selling traditional handicrafts and shops seeking to accommodate the needs of a growing city.

Kathys Waffle House

Kathy’s Waffle House

Scattered around the historic city center are the cathedrals and churches which lend an air of dignity and accentuate the beauty of the skyline. Breezes blowing off Lake Nicaragua help cool the air, in all but the dry season, vitalizing the city.

Iglesia Guadalupe

Iglesia Guadalupe

The physical expression of a city is fundamentally important; it’s the first impression, it’s what keeps you wanting to dig deeper, to know more. And what began to emerge, what drew us back for the third and extended stay was the relaxed feel and hospitality rooftopexerted by the expat community of varying backgrounds and nationalities. There is an eclectic mix of full-time residents, part-time residents and visitors driven by a multitude of personal motivations. The mix includes retirees, entrepreneurs, gap-year students, NGO professionals, volunteers, vagabonds and thrill-seekers.   And most have those ex-pat qualities of gregariousness and affability.  It is the norm to run into acquaintances on any short journey as we walk about the city and, since shank’s mare is the preferred mode of travel, social contact is amplified.

Old Train Depot

Old Train Depot

To augment the welcoming ambiance provided by the architecture and the expats, there is also the availability of world-class medical care and international transportation options found in the capital, Managua, just a short drive north of Granada. Vivian Pellas Medical Center, a newly constructed facility and private hospital, offers exceptional health care services at extremely affordable costs; it’s possible to ensure medical coverage through a monthly payment option. International flights are readily available at the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport to whisk tourists and expats to the States, Canada or any onward destination. Tica Bus Line has daily routes to all the capital cities in Central America and Mexico, so low-cost modes of transport are available for shorter jaunts.street scene

So it’s hard to leave a city that we have come to appreciate and friends with whom we’ve had great conversations and with whom we could develop deeper bonds given more time.  But we both agree that it’s time for new experiences and locations; time to leave a city and a country that have imprinted themselves upon us and move south, leaving Granada in the rear view.

La Iglesia Xalteva

La Iglesia Xalteva

By Anita and Richard, May, 2014

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.

By Anita and Richard, April, 2014

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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.

Jumping rope - Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

Jumping rope – Education Plus at Pantanal, Granada, NIC 2014

By Anita and Richard, March, 2014

 

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!

By Richard and Anita, January, 2014

 

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

By Anita and Richard, December 2013