Category Archives: travel

Art and Faith during Holy Week

On Good Friday I was immersed in color and tradition in Subtiava, a barrio of León.  I came for Semana Santa, Holy Week, and accompanied my Catholic friends to several masses and processions.  (I’ll write more about those in my next post).  But I was particularly excited to see the colored sawdust paintings that cover the streets in Subtiava, part of a 75 year-long tradition.

Moses parting the waters.

Most of the paintings depicted Biblical stories, while some were images of Jesus or designs with religious symbols.  My Catholic friends helped me understand the meaning—for each painting they identified the story, looking for clues in the characters or props, occasionally asking other people for help.

The narrow “street of the carpets” was closed off all day and flooded with Nicaraguan and international tourists and Leoneses all afternoon.

The paintings range from five by seven feet to six by 10 feet, every inch saturated in color.

Different families design and create the paintings, called “carpets of sawdust” in Spanish for their thickness.  They start in mid-morning and work all day in the hot summer sun to complete them.   But the process starts weeks before, with the design and preparation of materials.

A painting in progress

Sawdust dregs

One artist told me they use powdered clothing dye to get the rich colors of sawdust.  Some artists used paper, twigs, salt, leaves, flowers, seeds, and even glitter in their paintings.

Traditionally, each generation teaches the next the art of alfombras: one man was working with his young daughter to finish his design.

And there were many other kids spreading sawdust.  I joked with this boy, “Jesus needs his beard!”

A teenager I spoke with gestured to the small homes behind him and said those four households of his family work on the mural, including “all the cousins.”  The parents and grandparents sat in rocking chairs on the shady stoop, watching the tradition unfold in the care of new hands.

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…in honor of World Water Day

The river at the swimming hole was blue-green, opaque in the deep pool but clear in the shallow gap above the second cascade.  A little crab blended in among the tawny rocks and tadpoles hovered in the eddy as I lingered on the edge.

Dry leaves from the oaks overhead twirled down like butterflies, casting shadows on the limestone.  Uncharacteristically, I jumped in without first feeling the water, craving the shock and exhilaration.

My feet never touched  bottom as the water rushed over me, pulsing and clean.  Each time I ducked under the surface I became the river: cold, force, motion.

I climbed up mossy rocks to feel the waterfall at my back, its rhythm shifting:  now hard on my middle spine, now splashing my head.

Baptism by falls.


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Sorbete de pithaya = serious inspiration

Almost 2 months ago another blogger, India, who writes Bringing you Beirut ( somehow found my blog in the ether and gave me an award.  It was a very thoughtful shout-out and I have yet to recognize her or keep up my end of the deal! Namely, that I also share blogs that inspire me.

These aren’t personal blogs, but they do include personal writing, and make me feel connected to all the bigger things happening around the world.  And inspire me to think and write about them.

There’s a new online mag (not technically a blog) founded in order to create space for women writers.  It features work by a talented writer I know from Albuquerque, Molly Beer, and some other amazing nonfiction writers.  Also gorgeous photos. Vela Mag,

Global Voices compiles blogging analysis and wisdom from all over the world.  And translates it into 21 languages.  Find out what people from other countries think! A radical idea….

I just discovered  “Young feminists blogging, organizing, kicking ass.”  Nuff said.

And for my multilingual friends:

Two young Argentine radio producers travelling Latin America, “backpack radio” in tow, this blog tells their tales of the continent, including visits to community radio stations all over.  Proyecto Radio Mochila,

Two young French folks went around the world–by bicycle!  My friend and former colleague David met them when they stopped over in good ol’ Albuquerque.  They actually *just* arrived back in France a week ago,  a little over a year after beginning their trip.  La Caravane a Pedales,

Ok, I was supposed to include 7 blogs but have already bent the rules… In the interest of actually publishing this, I will add more as I am so inspired!


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Agua dulce

When the Nahuatl fled México long ago their shaman received a vision of a sacred island.  He told of two connected volcanoes surrounded by agua dulce, fresh water.  So the Nahuatl trekked hundreds of miles across the isthmus of the Americas until they sighted the dark peaks of Isla Ometepe rising from Lago Cocibolca. Then they knew they were home.

Though not in search of the sacred, I was moved by my time on the island.  From the ferry, the approach is dramatic—the wind on the waves and expanse of water make it feel like the sea.  The deep green volcanoes slope steeply up from shore, and are often ringed by lenticular clouds, the peaks high enough to create their own weather.

While I’ve experienced more rain here in months than in years in New Mexico, I still soaked up Ometepe’s holy water: rain, river, lake.

My first day I dipped in the lake after sunset, water and sky silvery grey in the twilight.  My friends and I floated in the sweet water, dusk birds transitioning to bats overhead.

My friend Meera in the light of the lake

We slowed our pace to appreciate the changing light across the water, comfy hammocks, views of clouds rolling over Volcan Maderas, long walks over rough road to get anywhere.

Twice we explored in kayaks, one day landing on a little beach with kids playing and swimming in their underwear.  Nearly every beach had its own stand of stacked, flat whitewashed rocks where the women wash clothes and everyone bathes.

The second kayak trip we explored the Río Istiam, a snaking waterway covered in bright green water “lettuce” and populated with crocodiles, caimans, and many, many herons.  We spotted five heron species–Great Blues, white great egrets, night herons, green herons, and little blue herons.  No doubt there were more, as they were everywhere, fishing and roosting and flying.

Black-crowned night heron

We paddled through the clear, coffee-colored water in search of crocodiles, but only our guide Willie spotted one, sunning itself on top of the water lettuce, then submerging before we could catch a glimpse.  We floated under the arch of a tree with tiny brown bats clinging to its trunk, perfectly camouflaged against the mottled bark. Meanwhile, flocks of parrots chattered by and ospreys circled high above.

The people of Ometepe take their living from the lake, fishing, washing, and playing in it.  They use it to irrigate their fields in the dry season and they bring their cows and horses down for a drink or a wash.

Catch of the day: mojarra

Traditionally the men fish from dugout canoes, made from a single massive tree trunk.  The kids make their own dugouts.  On two days, at different spots, I watched little boys tow their boats through the water as their mothers washed clothes in the lake.

By the end of the week I wondered if sun and sweet water were all we needed.


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Monkey Island

Howler monkey in a guarumo tree

In 4 days on Isla Ometepe I saw dozens of monkeys.  My two lovely friends Meera and Betsy visited me for a week of adventures, and the monkeys were often our companions.  They hung from the flexible branches of the guarumo trees around our hotel, snacking on the leaves.  They howled through the forest at night.  They were alternately indifferent, curious, and shy.

On our hike up Volcan Maderas a small group of white-faced monkeys glided through the canopy parallel to the trail, eyeing us nervously before melting back into the forest.  Then we got to swing on a thick vine across the trail, sweeping up into the air “como Tarzan!” our guide Saul said.

After climbing the steep slope we stopped for lunch with a view of cloud-crowned Volcan Concepcion across the isthmus.  A band of howler monkeys (monos congos here) snacked in the branches at eye level with us, the baby hiding behind his mother when we got too close.

When we pulled ashore in our kayaks the next day, we looked up to see a lone male in a tree above, hanging by his tail to reach the tip of the branches.  And on our last day on the island we caught the call of the howlers echoing across the water…


Filed under Nicaragua, travel