Now That’s What I Call Free Range

I nudge Jeff and utter a question to him that I would like him to translate into Spanish and ask his host family. He looks at me like I’m mental, asks if I’m serious, and then does as I request when he realizes that I really want to know.

“Um, how can you tell whose pig is whose?” Jeff asks.

His host family looks confused for a moment, but their expressions turn to understanding as I gesture out the open front door at a huge pig waddling down the street, sniffing and snuffling around. It’s not the first I’ve seen. In fact, I’ve seen more pigs—big mama pigs, whopper hogs, and tiny piglets—than I can keep track of, and for the most part they’ve all been wandering freely—not penned into a field or yard, not tied to a post, not watched over by anyone. And it’s not just pigs I’ve seen in such a state; it’s also cows, bulls, chickens, and a few horses. They graze on the side of the road, and share the street with motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, buses, and private autos. You’d be wise to watch where you step since they don’t just graze, but also do their other business wherever they feel like it.

This ultimate in free ranging is a testament to the sense of community here in Nicaragua. Nobody is worried that their neighbor is going to steal their livestock or do it any harm. It’s also about the power of home. Apparently no matter where the pigs, cows, and chickens roam during they day, they all come home to sleep. And that, my friends, is how you know whose pig is whose. It’s the one that sleeps in your backyard when the sun goes down.


We wandered up and down the town streets, and the most important memories stayed just out of my grasp. There was the town square where the bullfighting ring was set up. There was the baseball field, exactly as I remembered. We had just passed the school, which had many more buildings than I recalled. There was the beautiful blue and white church who’s plaza served as the bus stop. There was the “soda stand” where we often sat outside and had a coke (or sometimes, a beer … shhh!). It had been ten years and so much looked so familiar, and yet I still couldn’t locate my host family’s house.

We walked up the street I knew they lived on. Most of the way, until I had certified that every house along the way was not there’s and that it was certainly closer to the main road than we ended up. So we started back. There was one house that had potential, but it was quite different than I remembered and completely shuttered. So I asked a neighbor. After a lengthier exchange than necessary on account of my Spanish, I was assured they lived there and I only need knock on the door, they were in.

So with a fair bit of nervousness and hesitation (would they remember me? is it strange that I’m dropping in totally unannounced after ten years?) I chose a door (there were four that all could’ve passed for a front door) and knocked. When it opened, I immediately recognized the faces on the other side. One belonged to my host mother and the other to Kaylee, who was eleven when I last saw her. Though now 21, she had the same face.

Fortunately, they seemed to immediately recognize me and invited us in. Whew, first butterfly removed. And it was quite strange, because we immediately fell into conversation. About who was doing what after ten years. When I had been there, there were five children between 5 and 16. Shockingly, they had all aged ten years, just like I had. One daughter was studying medicine in Rivas, another was married and lived up the street and had two children (one a mere five days old). Another had a one year old son, Lionel, who stumbled around the room and took a particular liking to Theresa. Another son was working in the tobacco fields with his father, but the most startling to me was Franklin. Franklin was five when I left, and we had many a good time playing (it’s always easiest to befriend children in foreign languages … deep conversation is not necessary and they are so open and friendly and fascinated with you). They said Franklin cried and cried when I left. Well, he was now 15, finishing high school.

Soon thereafter, the father of the family, Zacarias, returned, and we had as thorough a conversation as we had ever had. Interestingly, I could feel my Spanish getting better as I talked to them (or else they were exceedingly good at understanding my broken Spanish) and I learned about many things. How this season was unusually rainy (as the rain fell outside). What that meant for his tobacco crops (not good but not a huge problem). Where the tobacco was sent and what became of it (cigars in Esteli). How cell phones and internet worked on the island (great and not so great, respectively). How it was a different world since I’d been there. Not to mention the always inquisitive Theresa had me ask about a bajilion questions, including ones had no idea how to ask. I think she learned a few things too she’ll post about.

But what surprised me most about this reunification was the fluidity and ease in which I fell back into their company. It is as I have always experienced with Ometepenos, hospitality and strong friendship. We parted after a few hours under the understanding that I did not know when I would be back, but that I would and I would let them know ahead of time because “aqui es casa tuya.”

The Boys of Si a la Vida

“You’re going to get robbed.” That’s what we first thought William was telling us. Then we thought he said that just I (Theresa) was going to get robbed. And then Jeff’s Spanish finally kicked in and we figured out that he wasn’t saying we’d be robbed; he was saying that someone was going to steal me from Jeff. (Awfully nice of him, since the cold showers, crazy humidity, and travel wardrobe aren’t really doing a lot for me.)

At sixteen, William is a romantic. He told us about his girlfriend and showed us the ring she had given him. He quizzed Jeff and I on how long we’d been married and whether we were “in love.” In many ways, he was a typical teenager. In so many ways, however, he’s not. William is one of 15 boys who live at Si a la Vida, a home on Ometepe for boys who were once street kids, abandoned by their parents and addicted to sniffing glue, the drug of choice for those unable to afford anything stronger.

The Si a la Vida boys have seen hard times, harder times than probably any of us can imagine. But spend a little time with them, and it’s almost hard to believe their background because they are sweet and funny and almost uniformly optimistic. They’ve come to the Ometepe location of Si a la Vida on their own free will, after first spending time at the Managua location where they overcame their addictions and gained a support system, often for the first time. On Ometepe, they live together in a wonderful home, attend school, receive counseling, get regular healthcare, and act like typical adolescent boys. For most of the boys there, this is the only home they have ever known, and they are welcome to stay until they are grown up and able to live on their own.

Yesterday Jeff and I spent the morning at Si a la Vida, the objective of our visit being to drop-off a bag of goods we’d transported down here. We’d worked with a group called Charity Begins, which I wrote about in a previous post, to get the donated items, and though carting the bag around on the five million types of public transportation we had to take to get here was a bit of a pain, it was totally worth it.

We ended up spending a few hours with the kids, hanging out through a torrential downpour up until the boys had to head to school (they go from noon to 5 p.m. around here). We watched them play games, answered questions, admired the bracelets they make and sell as a source of income, joked with them, and just hung out. Though I often found myself frustrated with my lack of Spanish knowledge (and thus all the more ready for the language class we plan to take next week), I think I was still able to connect. Language differences be damned…adolescent boys are adolescent boys and with three brothers, I’m pretty well versed in that language.


Theresa wrote a great post a while back about her first experience abroad. Well, it was not technically my first experience abroad, but I consider my trips to Ometepe in 1997 and 1998 to be my most eye opening experiences. To summarize, we stayed with local families and participated in a community project. But other things stuck with me more: The chicken we ate for dinner scurring past my feet around lunchtime. Drying racks teeming with tobacco hanging in the backyard. A hose and a curtain for a shower (and certainly no heat). No paved roads, and cows and horses often blocking the way anyway. In all, it was quite a departure for a 16 year old kid raised in the extreme comfort of Bainbridge Island.

It’s been ten years now since I was last on Ometepe. As a person who doesn’t often travel back to the same place as a tourist, it’s a different experience for me to be here. And in those ten years, a lot of things have changed. After 24 hours abroad, we’ve made it here via flight to Managua, bus to Rivas, taxi to San Jorge, boat to Moyogalpa and bus to Altagracia. Whew, long day! But I spent that last bus ride noticing that things on the island were in some ways different, but in some ways the same.

First, the road is now paved all the way from Moyogalpa to Altagracia. And it may be my poor memory, but both towns appear to have grown (a lot). Moyogalpa in particular had all kinds of activity going on that I did not remember. The number of “gringos” venturing to the island seems to have blossomed as well. The ferry we took seemed to be half tourists. And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I guess as one myself, I can’t complain too much, but Ometepe always had this undiscovered, untouched feel to it that seems to be disappearing. But this is how things go when people find a great place. Word travels. And anyways, who’s to say that what I remember Ometepe as is what it should be? Surely many lives on Ometepe are better off due to the uptick in tourism.

Anyway, back on track, many things still looked the same. We drove past the school I helped paint … and it looked like about a ten year old paint job. Free range animals still clogged up the now paved roads. The village I stayed in looked almost identical, and I felt like I could’ve navigated it with ease. The buses were decorated as peculiarly as they have always been, but they were less crowded. I mean, everyone on the bus had an actual seat.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the people. Everyone is still incredibly open and helpful. Courtesy and pleasantness seems to be a big part of Nicaraguan culture (except at Managua bus stations, but that’s another story).

We managed to meet up with this year’s Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Island Association (BOSIA) volunteer, Maggie, and had dinner with her and two other fellow travelers who happened to be staying next door to us and also seeking Maggie out. We got caught up on the latest happenings of BOSIA and the cultural activities, politics and happenings on the island. It probably was my naivete in high school, but the political and cultural landscape of Ometepe is a lot more complicated today than I recall it.

Since we’ve really just arrived in Altagracia, I’m sure I’ll have many more observations about Ometepe. But it’s both familiar and exotic to be here again, in a way that I haven’t been able to put my finger on yet. Hopefully by the end of our time here I’ll be able to put them into more cohesive ideas than this random hodge-podge I present to you today.

Leaving in Style

We’re now one leg on our way to Managua, sitting in the Houston airport, and I assure you, everything Theresa wrote yesterday is still true. It still hasn’t really hit. It’s starting to though. We were talking at lunch about how we wouldn’t step back on US soil for a full year. That’s a liberating and yet kind of terrifying thought. But above anything it’s exciting. As we’ve been saying, this trip will be memorable one way or another.

So we’re riding off in style, using our two free President’s Club passes to sit in the Continental Club lounge with all of its free perks, two backpackers not quite fitting in with the world of businessmen. But I guess we all use the free internet just the same. I think it’s quite a different experience than we’re used to. Anyway, here’s us, sitting in the lounge, in our last few hours on US soil and the most comfort we’ll likely see for months.