Masaya: Not What I Was Bargaining For

Last Thursday, once class was over and we had consumed one of the always enormous lunches provided by our host family, Jeff and I hopped the bus to Masaya, a nearby town famed for its markets. Jeff had been before but he hadn’t really said much about them except that he’d bought his hammock there. From what the guidebooks said and what others had mentioned in passing, I was under the impression that the old market—the one most highly recommended—was a place where artisans from all over Nicaragua set up shop and sold their goods: handwoven hammocks, carved wooden figurines, ceramic bowls and vases, and much more. I was pretty excited because, even though I wasn’t planning to buy anything—the backpack is full enough as is—I love looking at crafts and talking to the artisans who make them. I was expecting an arts and crafts fair with Central American flavor.

Well, boy was I disappointed. What I found instead was a sterile building with stand after stand selling the same exact things. In fact, they weren’t really stands at all; they were more like little shops. And the people who ran them weren’t artisans, but shopkeepers. They didn’t really know anything about the pieces or have any experience working with the crafts themselves. It wasn’t at all what I expected; instead it was prettily packaged tourism.

So we walked through rather briskly, glancing at variations on the same thing over and over, and then took a walk through the town to a malecon (or boardwalk) extending above the nearby Laguna. Luckily, it was rather scenic, providing a bit of saving grace to an otherwise disappointing trip.

I think I once heard someone say that you can’t win them all. Turns out they were right. But since we seem to win way more than we lose, I guess I can’t really complain. Chalk it up to experience.

Walking in the Clouds

Its not too often you can hop a bus into the clouds. But that’s exactly what we did last week as an easy day trip from Granada, riding the bus from the entrance to the Volcan Mombacho Reserve directly to the shrouded top. The top remains semi-permanently in a cloud from the moist air from Lake Nicaragua hitting the steep cliffs of the volcano. This results in what they call a “cloud forest.” I just call it neat and think its fun to walk around in.

They had a lovely path that wound around the main caldera, with vistas looking both ways, into the crater and out across Lake Nicaragua and Granada. If there were no signs to tell you what you were “looking at” however, it wouldn’t matter, since they all looked just like this.

But what all this cloud cover did was make everything look creepy and incredible all at the same time. Even simple trees took on new imagery. It didn’t hurt that the constant cloud cover provided a very moist environment that epiphytes apparently love.

The end point of our hike was a series of “fumadores,” emanations of steam from the earth. Given the conditions, however, these were tough to separate from the rest of the cloud until you were right in its sulfurous path. But from this western edge of the volcano, facing the lake, you could strongly feel the wind pushing up and over the mountain, and any body parts facing the lake collected cloud, like my arm.

All in all, it was a very surreal experience, but fascinating. Here’s a few more pictures to round it out.

Scheme # 1

Formed (at least in legend) by the explosion of the nearby volcano Mombacho, 365 tiny isletas—one for each day of the year—dot Lake Nicaragua just off the coast of Granada. In the heat of a Tuesday afternoon, we motored past them along with two of our classmates from Casa Xalteva, as well as a guide and a driver. Many of the isletas are too small to be occupied and thus are simply oasis of green as well as the occasional monkey.

Some are home to small communities–and by small I mean two to three houses. Some host restaurants (which allow you to swim as you wait for your meal).

And a final few are privately owned. All are beautiful and made me feel as if I were in the Caribbean, rather than a lake in the middle of Nicaragua.

Our guide, an employee of Casa Xalteva in charge of organizing outings, actually lived on an isleta and gave us some firsthand accounts of life on a tiny piece of land. His description of what they ate reminded me of a popular scene in Forrest Gump—fried fish, baked fish, fish with plantains, fish with yucca, plain fish, fish soup, etc.—and had us all laughing. On the other hand, his comment that you could buy one of these isletas for $40,000 had us all quietly contemplating. After all, who doesn’t want to own an island?

Later in the day, our feet back on solidly dry land, we wandered down the pedestrian lane that stretched from Grananda’s central park to the lake, happening past a travel agency with a help wanted sign in the window: Wanted, Bilingual Assistant. Jeff, though never before having expressed an interest in the field of travel planning, decided that he was plenty qualified. And there we had it—Scheme #1 in what I’m sure will be plenty as we travel the world and contemplate the many opportunities out there. Jeff putting his mad Spanish skills to work planning other people’s vacations, while I sit at home on our own private island and write a novel or two. Not a bad option, I’d say.

What I Learned in a Week of Spanish School

For our second week in Nicaragua, Jeff and I headed to Granada to spend a week in language school and at a homestay with a local family. Jeff, having studied Spanish at both the high school and college level, was just looking to brush off his somewhat dusty skills. I, having never received any more Spanish instruction than that offered by Sesame Street, was hoping to gain a little understanding of the language. All in all, I think it was a successful week. Jeff’s getting complimented left and right by native speakers on his language skills, and I, while somewhat limited in what I am able to say (at least without thinking about it for much longer than is suitable for conversations), can follow along with much conversation and handle some of the day to day business of traveling. I’m sure with time and practice—and immersion—more will come. And though a week may sound like a short amount of time to many of you, let me assure you that much was learned. Here, for example, are just a few things I learned.

1. Learning a language is much easier if you already know some other foreign language. All the things that seemed weird to you the first time around—conjugating every darn ending for each different pronoun, reflexive verbs, gender of nouns—make sense this time.

2. If I lived in Nicaragua, I’d probably die of either heart disease or diabetes. All of the food we were served by our host family was extremely salty and nearly always fried. All of the refrescoes—fruit drinks—had pounds of sugar in them. At times I thought I could feel my arteries clogging and my blood sugar shooting through the roof.

3. Politics are much more exciting in Nicaragua. Municipal elections are being held throughout the nation on November 9, and the campaigning is certainly rather interesting. Huge trucks ride through town, their beds packed with standing people waving their party’s flag and shouting slogans. The wooden posts holding up telephone and electric lines are painted in various party’s colors. People stand at intersections yelling at passing cars and waving flags at them. I can only imagine what presidential elections must be like.

4. The evening activity of choice in Nicaragua is stoop sitting. When darkness sets—at the early hour of 5:30 p.m.—you pull your rocking chair out onto the piece of sidewalk in front of your house and watch the world go by. Since children often live with their parents well into adulthood or at least live nearby, you can easily have 6 or more people out rocking in front of one house. We gave it a go twice, but just really couldn’t get into it. Maybe it was because the family we lived with resided on a pretty quiet street or maybe we just like to get out and do things. I will admit, however, that it was much cooler to sit out there than in the house.

5. You can go to university in Nicaragua, but you still probably won’t get a job. The oldest daughter of the family we lived with had a degree in computer studies, but spent her entire day sitting in front of the television watching telenovelas. My teacher at language school had an engineering degree but teaching Spanish for $1.25/hour/student was the best he could come up with. Though the Sandinistas have made education a priority during their political reign, they haven’t been able to mobilize the economy into one in which anyone can actually put their education to work.

(So we’re currently in northern Nicaragua exploring some nature reserves where there is no electricity or water, not to mention Internet, which explains why we’ve been neglecting you. But we have one night in the big city of Esteli, and so we’re loading up a lot of posts to keep you happy the next few days. Check back often for new posts, detailing our experiences in Granada and its environs last week.)

Laguna de Apoyo

Ever since we arrived in Granada, we heard how great the Laguna de Apoyo was. Beautiful, clear, refreshing water inside of a volcanic crater. So we decided to head there on Sunday. Though its a thirty minute drive away, any tour agency in town would take us there for a song (~$10). Here’s the problem: first, that was too easy for us and second, its funny how your concept of cheap and expensive changes.

Instead, we decided to take the shuttle from another hotel for less. Arriving there, we learned there was no shuttle this time of year, but they did inform us that an express bus left for there from the shuttle stand two blocks away. We rushed over as we only had a few minutes (or so we thought), only to find out this also did not exist. Instead, they could drop us off at the turn off of the highway, still an hour long walk away from the laguna. We decided this would not only be fine, it would be a great way to work up to a nice dip in the water. So off we went. We ignored the taxis waiting at the turn off offering to whisk us down to the laguna and started walking. We passed community after community, house after house, church after church, all in services on a Sunday morning. At every fork in the road (of which there were more than the map ever indicated), a handful of highly helpful people loitered, always with a smile and a point in the right direction. Its like they knew where we were headed or something.

But after an hour, we were still climbing and no laguna looked remotely in site. The sun was beating down, we had almost exhausted the water we brought, and we had heard the way down to the laguna was farther than the distance up. At this point, the whole walking thing started to seem like a bad idea.

But right about then, we crested a hill and there it was. A gorgeous vista out over the crater of a volcano, with a shimmering lake waiting for us hundreds of feet below. Granted, we still had a long way down to go, but all my thoughts of how loco we were vanished. We bounded down the hill with a spring in our step and headed to our original destination, having heard the private beaches were the best.

Unfortunately, Crater’s Edge had a small sign outside their hotel indicating they were closed for the entire month. Undeterred, we walked nearby to the Monkey Hut, took one look and decided this hostel was too touristy for our taste. And they wanted $6 for the privilege of hanging out (to be fair, for that you got to use their inner tubes and kayaks). Besides, they had no restaurant where we could get food.

So we walked down to the public beach. We parked ourselves at one of five identical looking beachfront restaurants, passing the afternoon in comfort with the locals. The water was clear and refreshing. Kids came over to take our pictures, we made friends with a group of small children playing in their underwear with floaties made of two liter coke bottles and watched a pair of teens do some serious making out nearby. I’m pretty sure none of this would’ve happened at our friendly hostel.

Our version of taking it easy on the way back was to take the hour late bus back out of the laguna, then hop another bus back to Granada. I don’t know why exactly we have this aversion to the simple way of doing things, but it does always lead to the “interesting” way instead. It would’ve been a much different day if we had just taken a taxi or tourist bus.

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.