March 27, 2016 @ 7:06 am
This morning I awoke to my first proper view of Nicaragua.
Everything within our compound is so full of color — brightly painted buildings, lush tropical plants, the people.
Breakfast was a sweeping spread of black beans and rice, scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, cheese, plantains (sweet-style), fresh fruit (including a white pineapple, which was delightful) and coffee.
Oh, the coffee. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… More espresso than coffee, it was rich and packed a punch. Unfortunately, it was also served in the tiniest of cups. Trying to not pull the “American Card," I fought the urge to throw the delicate 4oz cup to the side and drink straight from the thermos — a communal container equivalent to my french press times two at home, which I could easily drink solo. I limited myself to only one refill, for a whopping 8oz of caffeine. We shall see if it lasts me through the day.
Now, we must pack our bags. It hardly seems fair that we move on after only enjoying Hotel Los Chilamates (and their amazing coffee) for less than 7 hours. Due to our delayed arrival, we missed our first night and following day here. But we will spend today in Granada before continuing to Rivas this evening.
First item on today’s itinerary: buy bottled water. While it is relatively safe to use the tap for brushing teeth and showering, it’s ill-advised to guzzle. After receiving directions to a nearby market from the lovely Raquel, we left the compound and headed out into the “real” Nicaragua.
The cleanliness of our western hotel dissipated as we walked past the guard, through the gates and out onto dirt roads laden with litter. At first, I wondered where the people were? The homes we passed felt deserted. But as we continued through the neighborhood and my eyes adjusted to the scenery, I saw them. Scattered about, they sat wherever they could find a piece of shade large enough to shield their bodies from the already blistering sun. Some lay strewn across sidewalks while others sat under lean-tos that I could only presume doubled as both their source of shade and place of dwelling.
All stared at us as we silently passed through their world. With their blank expressions, I wondered what they were thinking? There go some Americans, on the way to buy bottled water and snacks. Were they curious about us? I felt intrusive. Were they bitter because of our presence?
We just discussed some basic haggling tips with the students — when it’s appropriate to negotiate, why you should never flash your money when traveling…
A few are worried about converting money in their heads to make sure they aren't overcharged for an item. I reassured them that either Gabriel or myself would assist at the checkout.
Reassuring myself that I was an asset to the students was another story. With the USD to Nicaraguan Cordoba rate at 1:28.36, I anxiously attempted to shake my hibernating math brain awake and come up with an easy way to run the conversions. I’ve yet to come up with a trick.
I just straddled a bicycleta more suited for the museum of ancient history. Upon our return from the market, Raquel took us into the heart of Granada where we rented the velocipedes (I kid, they were not that old), to cover more ground as we explore the city.
Before this morning, I was a bit skeptical of this trip. Gabriel and I never hire a guide when traveling. Most often, we have no itinerary at all — something that shocks many. Aren’t you guys worried you won’t make the most of your time? That you’ll miss out on something?
My rebuttal: Learning about a culture and gaining unique experiences while doing so is most important to us. While you can do both in a tourist-trodden destination, what you experience there is often diluted.
Raquel, however, is amazing. Passionate about sharing her culture with us, she’s shown both the tourist highlights and the locals’ hidden secrets. Granada, the oldest Spanish colonial city in Nicaragua, has a history full of violent invasions followed by periods of rebuilding and growth, ultimately producing unique pieces of architecture with influences spanning across multiple centuries. I attempted to capture some of it as we pedaled along.
As we crossed into the western half of the city, Raquel stopped us in front of a beautiful, brightly colored church. Iglesia de Xalteva, she told us it has been rebuilt several times over the last hundred years after being destroyed during the National War and later hit by an earthquake. Its most recent reconstruction was completed in 1921. Across from it sat a manicured park.
We were there no more than two minutes when music reached our ears. Unsure where it was coming from, I took a few steps towards the church and into the road that ran along its front — one that appeared to be blocked off.
Two city blocks down, a juvial Easter procession unhurriedly made its way down the street, carrying a life-size statue of Jesus. The group marched to the beat of trumpets touting the Hallelujah chorus as it approached the front steps of the church.
One of our students, forgetting today is Easter, asked Raquel what the procession was for?
“Today is the day my people celebrate. It is the day the peoples found out that Jesus was… what is the word? Resurrected from the dead. We celebrate because he is alive!”
Her words and the excitement on her face were beautiful.
Hopping back on the bicycletas, we continued the tour through Granada, stopping by Iglesia de Guadalupe and a few other historical sites.
When we turned onto the second to last road of our ride, a breeze kissed my face. Up ahead was Lake Nicaragua — the second largest lake in Latin America. About 99 miles (160 km) in length and 45 miles (72 km) in width, it looked as though we’d reached the ocean.
Technically, we did reach what archaeologists think was the ocean (or at least a large bay area), before multiple volcanoes blew their tops off, filling the water with lava and volcanic debris and creating the present land barrier that separates the lake from the Pacific Ocean.
“This is how the science thinks the lake got here… and maybe why the freshwater Bull Shark got here too.”
“Very interesting. Wait, what?”
“This is how the science thinks…”
“No, the shark part?”
“Maybe this is explanation for the freshwater Bull Shark in Lake Nicaragua.”
“It couldn’t have been a more docile shark trapped in here, huh? Had to be a Bull Shark…”
“Si, mami. Maybe keep your hands in the boat?”
With a wink, she pedaled off and our group followed down the road.
We’re now spread out on several small boats, floating mere inches above Bull Shark infested water. But I’m just being dramatic — I’m not as concerned about the Bull Sharks chomping a hole in the side of our boat as I am about possibly capsizing and my camera being lost at the bottom of Lake Nicaragua (with the Bull Sharks).
There have been no capsizing incidents to report on however, so I’m going to try and relax and note what we’ve seen.
Varying in size and appearance, there are 364 isletas. While it is apparent their bases are definitely made of volcanic stone, some have much more vegetation than others. What I find most impressive is imagining the nearest volcano, Mombacho’s, angry eruption. I am no scientist, but I’d wager it was most likely a stratovolcano — picturesque but violent. Did it scatter pyroclasts throughout Granada? Were the isletas formed over time and through multiple eruptions? Or was it one, giant blast that dispersed the mountain’s roof throughout the lake? It is impressive and terrifying to imagine such power.
The greener isletas not only feature more vegetation, but also bipedal inhabitants. At the beginning of the boat ride, we passed many lean-to shacks and homes made of four pieces of corrugated metal, protecting their homeowners of little more than the sun or a light rain. But the further we go into the isletas, the properties have become larger, more grandiose and more empty.
“Raquel, who owns these islands? With the big houses?”
“Peoples from the mainland.”
“They are vacation houses?”
“Si, mami. But they give jobs to other peoples in the isletas. The peoples take care of the islands when the owners are not on vacation.”
“So, maybe it is good?”
Our rig’s captain explained that the larger, more lush islands could be purchased for USD 200,000 to USD 300,000.
“But then, how much for the house?”
“So… Gabe? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could be like ‘yea, I own a private island.’” I only received a laugh in response to my very serious, but half-joking question.
After “house hunting” from the water, our captain navigated us to La Isla de los Monos. As its name implies, it is an island of Spider monkeys. They were a rowdy bunch — some dangled from the trees by their tails, hovering over our boats as we bobbed in the shall water near their shore. Several students laughed and asked our captain to get as close as possible to the primates.
A large sign warned against harming the monkeys’ habitat or feeding the critters. We circumnavigated the isleta in less than two minutes, which sparked a million questions in my brain. How do the monkeys survive? Sure, there is vegetation on the island. But with the entire land mass sitting at less than a city block in size, how is there enough to live on? Raquel said the monkeys do not swim — the ones there have been there for some time and have adapted to island life.
I realize some people might break the law and feed them, aiding their survival on the glorified volcanic rock. So then, what about maintaining the population? We saw perhaps six of them on the entire island. I don’t have to do the math to know their gene pool isn’t very diverse. Are more brought over, secretly? And how did they get there in the first place?
All unanswered questions eating at me.
We’ve claimed one of the isletas as our own! We have for the afternoon, at least.
One of the larger islands, it features a restaurant with alfresco dining, a swimming pool overlooking the lake and a shallow swimming area in the lake if one feels so incline to splash around with Bull Sharks. Some locals are eating lunch as well, enjoying the holiday.
Raquel called ahead and ordered for our group — I requested the fish with plantains and rice. When it slid in front of me, I was surprised to find the plate included eyeballs and teeth at no extra charge!
After consuming cod sperm and octopus eggs in Japan, eating a lunch with a face and a personality was no big deal — I was actually excited to try a fish caught off the waters surrounding the island. I was worried, however, about a few of the students who ordered fish. I’m sure they, like myself, originally anticipated a fillet.
I was particularly worried about Zach, who was less than enthused about our first two meals in Nicaragua. Attempting to stay engaged in the conversation at my table, I shifted my weight and leaned as far to the right as I dared, to watch his reaction as the plate slid in front of him. But there were too many people between us and I eventually gave up.
No more than 5 minutes passed before he appeared by my side.
“Sarah! Did you order the fish?”
“Yea.. what did you think about it?” — asked with caution.
“Really? That’s good to hear!”
“Did you eat the tail?”
“It’s amazing! The best thing I’ve had so far!”
I studied his face, trying to see if he was joking with me or being serious.
“So, are you going to eat your tail?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Can I have it?”
I laughed, seeing the genuine excitement on his face that meant yes, he’d truly eaten the fish tail and truly enjoyed it.
“Absolutely, go for it.”
He reached down and dismembered the tail from the fish’s body, removing it from my plate and chomping down as he called out a “thanks!” over his shoulder and headed back to the guys’ table.
The fish was delicious and I attempted to finish what was left of mine. Stealing glances at the locals who dined at adjoining tables, I realized my gringo fingers were going about the fish the wrong way — I was unable to strip the meat off the bones as cleanly as they had.
We’ll spend the afternoon on this island, swimming. I’m sure the vampires in our group (Gabriel and Blake) will remain in the shade. I, however, plan to soak in some Nicaraguan sun…
I was lounging by the pool when I heard my new favorite Spanish word: café. Raquel procured both Blake and myself a cup. After this morning’s delicious brew, I was ready for more. Incredibly thankful, I took a sip.
There was an interesting flavor that I could not put my finger on, so I took another sip. Then I looked over at Blake who was already half-finished with his brew.
“Is there… something… in here?”
“I thought so too on my first sip, but no… I don’t think so.”
I took a sniff and couldn’t smell any alcohol. We decided it must have been the sugar cane they added to our cups. Since neither of us typically add sugar to our coffee, the sweet syrup highly confused our palates. But the caffeine was delicious.
As I finished my cup, a man sat down at a nearby table and pulled out an acoustic guitar. He started to sing — loud enough for us to enjoy his pleasant voice, but soft enough so as not to disturb anyone’s conversation. I couldn’t understand a syllable, but it was beautiful. When Raquel returned to see how we enjoyed the café, she told us the melodies were traditional Nicaraguan mass songs.
It is special to be here today, for Easter. Although we are missing out on some traditions at home, watching another culture celebrate a holiday is truly unique. I think I’ll forfeit a tan for now, so I can continue listening to our neighbor’s peaceful voice.
We barely missed an encounter with the police.
While returning to the mainland, our boat pulled off to an abandoned isleta. Unsure of what was going on (and without a translator, as Raquel was on another vessel), we watched as our group’s second boat pulled over and docked beside us.
The captain of their boat ushered everyone quickly off (or attempted to), and instructed one student to go to our boat. The student hopped in and a life jacket was thrust in his arms. Then we sat, bobbing on the water beside an abandoned boat.
Less than a minute later, a silent boat crept past, carrying men in uniform. Turns out, our neighboring boat was one life jacket short (an illegal mistake to make). To avoid receiving a ticket, they decided to abandoned ship.
We carried their extra passenger with us the remaining distance. Back on the mainland, we jumped onto a bus with the other group and prepared for our journey to Rivas.
The other group is much larger than ours. Predominately high school seniors on Spring Break with their Spanish teachers, they seem nice.
We’re headed south on the Pan-American road — the same that starts in Alaska and weaves 30,000 miles (48,000 km) south through the Americas, ending in Tierra del Fuego. It’s a nice drive through the countryside. Raquel occasionally points out different crops — sugar cane, cashews, plantains.
When we passed a papaya farm, Raquel became very excited.
“Look, chicos — papaya farm! Do you know what the papaya is good for?”
“Si, si. But more. If you don’t have the aloe and you have the burn and you have the papaya… muy bien! No problem. It does not heal the burn, but it make you feel better.”
Everything we pass, even the plantations and farms, are much more brown than we expected. Since it is the dry season, it has not rained for several months.
“The trees are not dead chicos. They are just growing stronger as they wait for the rain.”
Although the vegetation is brown, the soil looks fertile. When the rains start in May, I’m sure the plants will have no problem sprouting to life. It made me wonder — why have no rich, white western men come in and purchased these resources?
No sooner had the thought entered my mind when off in the distance, a wall of wind turbines rose from the horizon. There must have been more than 50 scattered across the span of only a few miles.
“Raquel, who owns these turbines? The government?”
“No, mami. It is a private investor.”
“One person owns all of these?”
“Si, mami. They find a loop hole and buy up the lands. They get the wind from the lake, but export the energy. It is too expensive for the people living here to use.”
She didn’t say anything else, but I could sense her frustration. Here, the people are forced to live under the turbines’ shadows, to always look at their cold structures. A form we see as clean and forward thinking, it is a constant reminder that another, much wealthier world exists than the one they live in. And more importantly, it is a world they are not invited to be a part of.
We’ve arrived in San Juan Del Sur.
A small beach town, we rolled in at sunset with just enough light to see boats bobbing lazily on the cove’s calm waters. We were deposited at the hotel, where we readied ourselves for dinner before taking an evening stroll a few blocks down to the restaurant.
The menu: Grilled chicken, salad and vanilla ice cream with rum raisins. Although it was not the best meal of the trip so far, it was still delicious after a long and active day.
At the hotel, Raquel asked the students what their favorite and least favorite part of the day was. I enjoyed hearing each of their highlights. Not long after, we ran room-checks before crashing into bed ourselves.
Tomorrow’s itinerary, while exciting, promises to deliver another exhausting day…