January 7, 2011

I’m back! Home! It feels good, amazingly, to be back to the below zero temperatures, snow and ice. I suppose some time away will do that for you. Creature comforts are nice too. You know, woolly socks and the like.

Nicaragua. Crazy. I’d like for these photos to do the talking but I should probably tell you a little about it. We had an awesome time; it’s always so wonderful to me to get out of the country and go somewhere new, different, culturally unfamiliar and just throw myself into it. Nicaragua certainly allowed for that and then some.

We spent a few days, including Christmas, in Granada which is a largish city on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. We wandered the crazy streets, avoiding traffic, hopping between avenues, marvelling at the painted facades of every single building and house. The colour of that city was immense.

The main square, or parque central, was somewhat of a hub, with the giant yellow cathedral bearing over everything. There was a small comedor (little outdoor eatery) in each corner, where I tried my first vigorón and the best gallo pinto I had the entire trip. Don’t worry, I’ll be posting separately about some of the amazing food we ate. It’s too much to squeeze in here!

On Christmas Day we went on a crazy bike ride on the worst road I’ve ever attempted to cycle on, out to a peninsular jutting into Lake Nicaragua. The bumping over human-sized potholes and rocks, heat and dust gave me blisters and bruises in places you don’t want to think about! The picture below was taken on the extremely well-paved road that led to the crazy road…

From Granada, we took the most insane two hour bus ride down to Isla de Ometepe, an island in the middle of Central America’s largest lake, which is home to not one, but two active volcanoes.

I’m not sure I can capture that bus ride but imagine this: old American school bus, packed so full that the entire aisle is full of people standing; bags, packages, carts being thrown onto the roof; a guy hanging off the back door so he can usher people on and off; being made to randomly change buses halfway through our journey and scrambling to grab our backpacks and hop on the bus behind us; a loud, awful Chinese-dubbed-in-Spanish film blaring throughout the journey; sitting, then standing; then sitting, depending on who was getting on and off; climbing over people; playing peek-a-boo with a baby who’d been screaming the bus down; heat; dust; shouting; countryside whizzing by. Yes. You get the picture.

Finally we got on a boat and headed out to that island I was talking about.

Ometepe was such relative peace and tranquilty after Granada and that bus ride. We stayed at a place called Finca Magdalena, a farm cooperative run by 24 families, producing organic coffee, corn, beans, rice, plantains, milk and vegetables, all of which were served as part of their daily menu.

We thought we’d stay forever, yet after a couple of days and a 10km scramble (on hands and knees sometimes, in the mud, sliding on our bums multiple times) up an active, steaming volcano, we decided to move on.

Onwards to the Pacific coast and San Juan del Sur for an unplanned pit stop and day at the beach, before marching onwards to León, our final destination.

Luxury awaited us in León – our only accommodation splurge of the trip – in a beautiful colonial mansion amidst the craziness of León’s streets. The proclaimed university town of Nicaragua was relatively student-free since it was the holidays, which was a shame but the buzz of the city was still apparent and it was our favourite city by far. So many bright, colourful buildings, crumbling and old but full of character and stature. Dusk and early morning were our favourite times to wander the streets in the relative calm before the storm of daytime hubbub or nighttime hawkers and food vendors that crowded the streets.

Nowhere was Nicaragua’s violent history recounted and honoured more than in León with statues, stark monuments, street art, tiny museums and brazen yellow plaques and pillars remembering the fallen Sandinistas whenever you turned a corner.

On our last couple of days I tried to think of three words to sum up the whole trip and these are them:




We knew Nicaragua was poor before we went, of course, but I don’t think that either of us was truly prepared for the level of poverty that we’d be experiencing. Stray animals, crazy-hectic streets and a lack of hygiene, yes. But also a complete lack of good infrastructure that made it so hard to get around and figure things out. Then there was the begging, which was not like anything I’ve experienced. I’ve travelled through South America and South-East Asia – Bolivia and Indonesia standing out as the two most obviously “third world” of the countries I visited – but we just weren’t prepared for some of what Nicaragua had to throw at us.

When a dirty, barefooted eight year old girl comes up to you while you’re eating your breakfast at the local fritanga and asks you straight out to give her your breakfast, with her hand outstretched, it does something to you. It has an impact. When you see her brothers sitting on the park bench behind her sniffing glue at 8.00 a.m. and waiting, hovering, like vultures for you to finish so that they can swoop on the leftovers you were too full to eat, well, that does something to you as well.

So, yes, it was hard (by the way, the cynics amongst you will enjoy this). We had to readjust our expectations a few times. What did we want to get out of this trip? What was realistic to expect? We did a good job of readjusting and adapting. We made it our trip. Ultimately, we had a really great time and enjoyed it. Nicaragua is an amazing country.

Dan and I took it all in together, which was new and fun, since we realised that we’ve never actually been on holiday together just the two of us, without anyone else we know involved. We had each other to measure our reactions by, and to temper them. We felt lucky, on many occasions, for all that we have in the United States and all that we were lucky enough to be brought up with. We had someone else to turn to while looking at a stunning view and say, “how flipping cool” and someone else to enjoy litre after litre of Toña beer with. That’s pretty awesome if you ask me.

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