Monthly Archives: September 2011


En la playa

If León is known as one of the hottest cities in Nicaragua, Chinandega is simply notorious for its heat.  Imagine my chagrin when I was forced to spend several hours there when the midday bus I tried to catch arrived, then suddenly left, rider-less.  I trundled through the streets with my (overpacked) backpack, in desperate search of shade (none—the central park was too sparsely treed), air conditioning (ha!), or a fan (which I finally found in an internet café).

At 3 I returned to the bus station and boarded for Jiquilillo (“Hee-kee-lee-yo,” practically a travalengua, tongue-twister) on the Pacific coast.  An Evangelical preacher boomed into his closed-fist “microphone” as the bus lurched out of the station.  The air stirred enough for me to register that I was completely soaked in sweat.

Yet a mere hour and a half later and I was in the ocean: rolling breakers, low tide, water stretched out to the horizon, pulled flat like a sheet, water and sand silver grey, soft shallow waves rinsing off all the sweat and stress.

No hotels there, just fisherman and campesinos since the tsunami of 1992 washed away the resorts and beach homes.  There are, as of the last decade, a couple of hostels, including the one I stayed in, owned by an American who was a volunteer in the village.

So I spent two relaxing days contemplating space: of sky, water, sound.  I watched the fishermen roll their long boats up and down the beach on logs at low tide.  I watched their children play with identical boats in the surf, fiberglass painted in bright colors with tiny log rollers made of sticks.  One morning a boy in a purple soccer jersey ran up the beach, fingers stuck in the jaw of a huge fish with a parrot mouth.  Pelicans skimmed the water as I dipped through the waves and tiny orange crabs excavated their holes.

One day I took a surf lesson from Nate, the owner.  He patiently held the board as I awkwardly hurled myself atop it, then yelled for me to paddle and “pop!” when the wave was under me.  I managed several rides on one knee and one foot, and felt the excitement and rush of water and speed once the board was under the power of the wave.  Thankfully, the water was shallow and warm, so all the tumbling wasn’t too uncomfortable.

The next day I walked north on the beach to the “Fiesta de las Tortugas.”  The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is critical mangrove habitat (where it’s not been deforested for hotels, shrimp farms, or luxury homes) and endangered hawksbill turtles are among many animals that nest there.  Along the way I was able to see the progression of habitat: from quasi-developed farms and homes where the mangroves were cut back entirely or to the margins of the property, to a 2-km stretch of just mangroves, densely branched and bright green with occasional tunnels to allow people to pass through.

After an hour of walking I reached the estuary, where the sand curved west to border a broad expanse of water.  Suddenly I could see Volcan Cosiguina, hazy green in the distance, and islands and peninsulas with no signs of humans.  The fiesta was full of young people from the area and Chinandega, some of whom performed traditional dances.  There were booths from the government tourism and environment bureaus and local environmental groups.  Girls from Jiquilillo and neighboring schools competed in a beauty contest with costumes celebrating the ocean, some made of shells.  One girl wore a paper sea turtle suit, awkwardly pushing back the beak headpiece with her flippered hands.  “Yo no como huevos de tortugas!” “I don’t eat turtle eggs!” she shouted.

I missed the release of baby turtles from a breeding project but was able to see a beautiful young hawksbill (Tortuga carey in Spanish), rubbery black, white flippers flapping wildly, cradled by a Nicaraguan sailor in blue camouflage fatigues.

The hostel is closing for the season, as October promises endless rain and mosquitoes (which were already ferocious enough to drive me into my netted-bed at 8:30 each night.)  Yet the turtles will return to the beaches for the next couple months to lay their eggs by the light of the moon.

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El día de la independencia

Throughout the last 3 weeks the low bass rumble of drums and timbre of xylophones could be heard in the streets of Leon.  Sometimes I would turn down a street corner and catch the rhythm, growing louder until I passed a colegio where the students were practicing in a marching band.  Other days the bands came from the streets, marching through the city in full sun, often accompanied by an ambulance that cleared the way, sirens blaring.  They were all practicing for the fiestas of the month: the practically week-long celebration of Nicaragua’s independence from Spain, officially on September 15th but with school holidays stretching the week, and three days of desfiles, parades.

Nearly every high school in Leon (and in many other cities) has a banda militar featuring mostly drums and xylophones, no horns, and dancers and baton-twirlers.

On Wednesday, the streets were empty except for those thronged with marching bands and bystanders.   The students were often expressionless as they banged on drums or danced down the street, faces shiny with sweat.  Each band wore the dress uniform of their school.  One school wore white polo shirts tucked into navy pants or skirts; in another school the girls were in starched white dresses with pleated skirts and pale blue sashes, and the boys in white collared shirts with pale blue tie and matching blue pants.

On Tuesday the primary school students marched, and on Wednesday the high school bands filled the street in an hours-long procession.  I got a spot on a corner near my house, surrounded by families in their best clothes cheering for their children’s schools.  The street was lined with bright umbrellas to ward off the intense sun, and vendors flowed through the crowd selling water and ice cream and tamales.  Soon I climbed onto a balcony above the street, squeezed in between a wall and a five year-old boy whose mom warmly offered me a spot with a better angle for photos.

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Life’s Pleasures

Iglesia el Calvario

I awake in my little bed in León to the rooster, or the footsteps of the children of the house running to the door, or the blare of a truck-mounted stereo advertising a sale on the street.  The terraza outside my door is damp from last night’s rain, yellow leaves from the tree scattered over the cement.  I do some yoga there or on the cool tiles of my room.  Then I enter the screened-in kitchen to prepare breakfast.  Today I ate a fruit salad in tones of ochre: creamy papaya, peach-fleshed zapote, white piña, and yellow mango.  I sat on the terraza enveloped in waves of fragrance from the white flowers blooming overhead.

At the mercado later this morning I threaded my way through the stalls of vegetables and fruit, pausing to buy carrots, two kinds of squash, onions, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and avocado.  I passed a basket of bright pink flowers, creamy interior, petals swirling up from the base, the bottom of the basket ringed by deep red hyacinth-like flowers.  Outside I paid 10 cordobas, 40 cents, for two coconut candies from a young woman, who reached into the deep pockets of her flowered apron for my change.  The chocolate-colored one was actually con dulce, made with dark brown molasses, smoky and sweet, while the blanco was plain, creamy coconut with plenty of sugar.

I wandered around with my camera today and ended up exploring a pink baroque church at the edge of the city center.  As I entered the cool space I saw a man holding a guitar, silhouetted by the bright light from the massive doorway opposite me.  He sat down on a pew to play, his voice resonating, the church empty except for a friend sitting next to him and a young woman praying at the altar.  I stopped to listen to his clear, soulful voice, and realized he was singing a religious song to the tune of a song by Simon and Garfunkel (which may in turn have been a folk song).  He noticed me listening and we started talking.

Ysidro, Iglesia el Calvario

Ysidro works for the church, playing music to accompany the mass and also throughout the day.  I took some photos of him singing and he asked if I had a recorder.  I did, I said, and told him I would return another day to record him.  He asked if I was Católica, and I said no, but I find spirituality in many places, and I enjoy sharing sacred spaces with others.  He nodded, apparently in understanding, and told me, “Cuídase,” take care.

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La ducha, y Ana, Dora y Esteffany getting ready for the festival de maiz

Miraflor is the name of the rural area in northern Nicaragua where I volunteered several times over the last seven years.  I returned there two weeks ago to visit my host family, mi familia Nicaraguense, for the first time in 3 years.  I was amazed at both how much had changed and how much was the same: Ana, at 25 the eldest daughter, now has a year and a half-old daughter; Maykal, who was a silly, gangly 8 year-old when I first met him, is about to turn 16; the house has grown to accommodate older children and their children, with the kitchen now in a separate structure; and the family now has 4 dogs where my first year there they had none.

Thankfully though, the “kids” are the same: Maykal still curious and open and Deira, now 19, quick to make silly jokes and (mostly) up for the excursions around the countryside that I propose. Dora and Juan, the parents, have aged somewhat but are still tireless in their work around the house, in endless motion to cook and feed animals and people, repair the earthen floors and adobe walls, wash clothes, and harvest.

In the village many people now have electricity, some with refrigerators and flat-screen TVs in addition to the bare bulbs hung from the ceiling in the main sala of the house.

Yet the women still cook over open fires in adobe hearths, get their water from a common tap outside, and the earthen floors are criss-crossed by hens, dogs, cats, and children throughout the day.  My host family lives just past the last house with electricity—the government project to bring la luz petered out 2 years ago, so they rely on a solar panel and an old car battery for a small amount of electricity, enough to cook and eat by at night.

When it rains, the water flows down the corrugations of the roof and pools on the bare earth around the house, then runs over the exposed rocks and into the garden.  The foliage in front of the house is dense, hiding the road from sight, and the pale, broad leaves of the malanga and short, glossy leaves of the jocote alike perk and grow in the downpour, bathed with water.

The rain starts as a feathery drizzle on the tin roof, gaining in volume and intensity, now like rolling iron nails, then drumming, then pounding, blocking out any conversation.  Waves of thunder, sudden cracks that coincide with bright flashes, the house dark even at midday with the sky turned deep gray.

One day it rained like that for 2 hours, and afterwards the road up to la Pita was muddy and the river crossings impassable except on foot or horseback, the road filled with boulders and deep sand bars.  I was on my way back from the cosecha, the harvest festival, with Dora and Deira when the rain started.  We barely made it to a house along the path, ducking into the front porch just as the downpour began.  From the porch we watched the rain stream off the roof in silvery ropes between each corrugation.

Some days I just lie in bed and listen to the rain, for as Dora says, “Es rico acostarse cuando hay mucha lluvia,” or “it’s delicious to rest when it’s raining hard.”

After the rain the mud oozes underfoot of pigs, dogs, and people, sucking off flip-flops with ease.  The stream runs higher and louder, now a low roar where before I only caught its sound at night when the lights were out, and crickets, too.

Despite the water everywhere, and the cooler climate in the mountains, it is very important to bathe every day.  The people here bathe from (and get the day’s water from) an all-purpose cement pool behind every house called la pila.  They scoop out panfuls of water and quickly pour them over themselves, then lather up with green blocks of soap that also serve as laundry detergent. When I first came to the village I learned to bathe that way, but out of a bucket protected in a little three-sided shelter for privacy (everyone else just strips down to their underwear).  Now there is a shower of sorts,that only I (and visiting tourists) use.

The three-sided cinder block ducha opens up to the sky and jocote trees, and the smoke that floats up from the adobe kitchen.  Small green plants grow underfoot, and the water runs out through a hole in the cement floor to the garden.  It rained nearly every day when I visited, and at times I was hard-pressed to motivate to bathe in cold water on a cloudy day!  One trick I use is taking a short hike down the road and back to work up a bit of a sweat first!

One day I turned on the tap and watched as the first drops of water came out of the grey plastic tubo, willing myself to plunge under.  Suddenly the water turned brown, then slimy, and out popped a tiny frog!  It clung to the edge of the tube with one foot as I yelped in shock, “una rana salió del tubo!”  I heard Dora and Ana laughing in the kitchen as I gently pulled it off and tossed it into the garden.

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Laguna las Pilas/El Hoyo

We left early, just after sunrise, to catch two buses to a laguna near the cinder-red, active volcano Momotombo.  Then we wound down a narrow dirt road, deep volcanic sand underfoot.  On the way we caught a glimpse of a bright blue and green bird with a long, plumed tail, called a guardabarranca.  Then more birds rustling in the trees, and small lizards that dashed across the road.  After paying a $2 entry fee (foreigner rate) we turned north and headed uphill to a small mirador, a wood and thatch structure on stilts open on all sides to views of the laguna below and volcanoes in every direction.

I floated on my back in the tepid water, which was clear past my feet even in the depths away from the shore.   From the lake, the forest appeared to cling to the slopes of the caldera like green fur, vines and foliage draped from one tree to the next in a dense canopy.  Clouds wrapped around the twin volcanoes above the laguna, and a plume of smoke vented from one, the more active El hoyo.

The laguna was a cool refuge not just from the sun but from the tiny, relentless black ants that attached to, then bit, any available limb on shore, and also pesky black-and-yellow centipedes, a dozen of which crossed my towel as I tried to relax out of the water.  Also on the shore narrow-winged orange butterflies drank from the dark sand.

I had come with a young German couple, whose interest in each other soon outweighed my interest in being  a third wheel, so I returned on my own, passing a couple other Nicaraguans and three foreign tourists.  I saw more wildlife on the way back, quiet in my thoughts and observations.   I passed a pile of cow dung covered in small orange butterflies, which rose in a cloud.  A pair of bright orioles flew over me as I walked and jays called noisily from the trees.  A bright green lizard ran across the road, then turned to look back at me, opening its pink mouth.

At the empalme, the junction where I waited for the bus back, a man I’d seen on the bus paused to ask me where I was going.  His t-shirt read (in English), “The hardest job you’ll ever love,” with a picture of a father and son.  “¿Anda paseando?”  he asked, leaning on a post, “Travelling on?”  “Yes,” I said, “I’m going back to Leon.”  He asked if I had been to the laguna, and I said yes.  “How was it?” he asked.  “Beautiful,” I replied, “Have you been there?” “No,” he said, and I wondered how someone who lived so close could avoid visiting such a beautiful place.  Or, to phrase it differently, what leads me to the laguna, and not he?

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