Monday, May 4, 2009

Home Again

Well, we've been back for a few days now and it's still a bit strange being home. It was sad saying goodbye to Nicaragua and everyone at La Mariposa. We had a really good experience there and came to love many aspects of the country. Our last few days were relatively quiet, although we did take the opportunity to look at some properties that were for sale near us. Both pieces of land had amazing views of the volcanoes and surrounding area. The first property was smaller but had facilities like water and electrical hookup and the road in front was due to be paved in the near future. The second property was much larger and had a diverse terrain that could be used for farming and forest conservation.

Aside from looking at land, we finished up our Spanish classes and said our goodbyes to the wonderful teachers. I think we feel like we accomplished the goals we set. Now we just need to make sure that we keep up with what we learned!

The flights home went well and I was happy to see my poor hammock survived being checked in attached to J.B.'s bag. We had hoped to carry it on, but the pole was considered a "weapon", so at the last minute we had to check the hammock. Much to our surprise, it didn't fall apart or get dirty. Yea!

The weather in N.E. isn't too bad. It's in the 60's and a bit grey, but many plants and trees are blooming. Unfortunately, it's due to rain this week. Somehow, I didn't mind seeing rain in Nicaragua, but I would prefer not to have it the first week back here.

We are definitely enjoying some of the creature comforts that we missed during the last 2 months. It's nice to sleep in our own comfy bed and to clean our clothes in a washing machine. (It took 3 days to wash everything and I didn't think we brought that much!) It is remarkably quiet here. After getting used to all the animals and their noises at the Mariposa, it's definitely an adjustment being home where you don't hear much aside from some traffic and early morning birds.

Some people have asked what's next for us and we hope to head up to Peaks Island for the summer in the next week. We're also looking at taking a trip to England/Ireland in the summer. After that, we're not sure. We're still planning on traveling somewhere else, but haven't decided on the final destination yet. It'd be good to continue using our Spanish, so Buenos Aires or somewhere similar could be the pick.

So, this will be my final post on this chapter of our travels. Adios for now and thanks for reading and posting comments!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fun in the Sun

After our weekend in Ometepe, we had a bit of a low-keyed week. We didn't go on any of the trips during the week since we had done them before and wanted to focus on the last of our Spanish lessons.

The weather has been interesting, it's gotten a bit cloudier and last Thursday we thought we felt a few raindrops, but the rain still hasn't come yet. One other sign that makes us think they'll be here soon is that the cicadas have stopped - yea! I would actually like to experience the rain just to see what it's like (and to justify our bringing rain jackets)

I was highly amused this week by some of the animals. Two of the monkeys have definitely become a couple and are really cute together. I tried to get a picture of them cuddling, but they weren't cooperating. The other two monkeys seem to be hanging out together more as well. It would be exciting if there were some baby monkey's here.

The other thing I was amused by was one of the parrots. It kept trying to break out of the cage by picking the lock with it's beak. Paulette said that this was actually bad for it's beak and and they'll be putting a wooden box around it (the lock that is, not the beak)

There were also these large bumblebees that loved this one flower near the dining table. They were there all morning, but we haven't seen them since.

Paulette also had someone bring a small, tame fox to her. It's around 6 months old and really cute. While it likes people, it doesn't like dogs so everytime I go to visit, she runs into her terracotta planter because the dogs run over to me. Paulette's plan is to get her well fed and then let go in the Chocoyero forest. She'll have the guides there keep an eye on it.

At the end of the week, we went to La Boquita and Casares. La Boquita is a beach on the Pacific coast and Casares, the next town over is a fishing village. La Boquita is as lovely as the pictures indicated. We had a great time playing in the surf and watching the surfers. For those that didn't want as much wave action, there is a small, fresh water pool nearby.

After spending the day at La Boquita, our driver dropped J.B. and I off at the hotel in Casares. We were the only people staying there so we had the place pretty much to ourselves aside from the owner and staff. The hotel is right on the beach and our room overlooked the colorful fishing boats below.

In the evening, we watched some fishermen go out for the night. The process was interesting. They keep the boats on the beach on these two large rollers. The engines have been removed. When they're ready to go out, they roll the boat to the edge of the water, remove the rollers, put in the engine and then the boat takes off at full speed. The process is reversed when they get back from their trip. In the morning, the boats head out around 5:00am and the night fishermen return about 8:00am. When the boats return, the women go down to check the wares and take the freshest fish. We saw one woman, take a fish, sniff it, look at its gills and throw it back at the fisherman with a "no me gusta!".

We had a nice meal Saturday night, with only one other couple as customers. The same was true in the morning, just us and another couple. The food was good both times and very filling.

We left mid-day and took three different buses before arriving home. It was the first time we spoke almost exclusively in Spanish and fortunately people could understand us!

We head into our final 3 days now. While I'm looking forward to going home, I will definitely be sad leaving here. The time has gone by very quickly and not only have we made progress with our Spanish, but we've also seen and experienced a good part of Nicaragua as well as met some interesting people. My next post will most likely be written from the U.S., so I'll sign off with Hasta Pronto!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

La Isla de Ometepe

Friday we made the much anticipated trip to Ometepe. Ometepe is an island in Lake Nicaragua that contains two volcanoes. One is active (Conception) and the other is inactive (Maderas).

We left at noon and drove for about an hour and a half to San Jorge/Rivas. From there we boarded a ferry to Ometepe. J.B. and I thought it was funny how similar the process was to the one we go through when going to Peaks. The ferry carries cars as well as passengers, but that day there wasn't a large number of either. Before leaving we watched boys jumping off the nearby dock into the water, something that the kids do on Peaks. The ferry took just over an hour to reach Ometepe. The ride was a little choppy but nothing like what the smaller ferries experience. The port at Ometepe was fairly busy and we caught a local bus to take us to the hotel. We thought the bus would take about 40 minutes, but 2 hours later we arrived at the stop closest to our hotel. Despite the length, it was an interesting ride. We got to see a good amount of the island - most of which is filled with plantain fields. After you leave the port area, houses are fairly spread out except for a few other "towns".

We were pretty tired and hungry by the time we arrived at the bus stop. Unfortunately, we had a 20 minute walk uphill before we actually got to the hotel. The hotel grounds were quite lovely and had impressive views of both volcanoes, although Conception, the active volcano was just in front of us. The sunsets were quite amazing.

The room we had was basic but clean. It lacked certain things like a mirror and hooks to hang clothes or towels, but I think we had a better room than the others. While theirs were newer, they lacked the character of ours and had a few more insect visitors.

One drawback to the hotel was the food. It wasn't the best and we were missing the great meals that are served at the Mariposa. The other drawback is that the hotel is a bit remote and it was difficult to get to other areas without either taking local transport which was infrequent or pay a huge fare for a taxi.

After eating and turning in early, we got up early for breakfast and planned the day. Four of us decided to rent bicycles and visit the town of Merida. This was a bit of a doomed venture. We should have known this when the bikes the hotel rented us lacked things like proper brakes. After Andrea fell off her bike trying to stop it while going down the drive, we decided to try renting bikes from a shop that Greg had seen on his morning run. We walked about 20 minutes in the hot sun until we reached the spot where a family was renting bikes. After several minutes where they found bikes, put air in the tires and adjusted seats, we were ready to go again. During this time, one of the women also put oil on my bike chain. She looked completely shocked when I handed her a wipe for her hands which had gotten rather oily. I thought it was a better solution than the rock she was trying to use, but maybe not. :-)

We headed out down the road but once again ran into a brake problem. Not only did my breaks sound like a sick elephant, but they really didn't work too well and the back wheel kept fishtailing. After a bit of discussion, J.B. and I went to change the bike out. The woman at the place had a discussion with her son which resulted, I'm fairly sure, with me getting his bike. The brakes seemed ok, but after going a bit, I was getting a little nervous as I really needed to squeeze them before the bike would stop. I decided to keep going - bad decision. After a stop to decide which way to go, we opted for our original plan of going to Merida. We had just gotten past the bottom of our hotel drive when I decided to give up. The roads we were riding on were incredibly rocky and very hilly. I felt like each time I went down one, I was going to fall of and break something. So being a wimp, I told the others to go on without me. J.B. took pity on me and decided to abandon the trip as well. I can't say we were in the best of moods at this point, but we decided to return the bikes, go have lunch and resort to plan b, whatever that was. We returned the bikes (I'm sure the family thought were were completely insane) and walked back to the hotel. 20 minutes in the hot sun and going up a steep hill didn't exactly improve our moods, but we figured we'd be ok after lunch and a drink. While the lunch was some bizarre combination of white rolls with something suspiciously looking like baloney, at least the rum and beer was good. After a bit of discussion, we decided to walk to the beach and go swimming. This turned out to be a good idea. The beach was another hot 20 minute walk, but once we were on the sand, there was a nice breeze that cooled us off. The beach at the end we entered didn't have many people, but standing in the surf were 3 horses. We regretted not bringing the camera as the sight was something to see. We walked for about an hour along the coast of the lake. During the walk, we saw some other tourists, a few wild turkeys, more horses, a few herons and the blue jays that are popular on the island. We stopped at a nice restaurant and had a drink and tried a shrimp "cocktail". After this we walked back down the beach and to the hotel. By then the others had arrived. Andrea and Greg told us about their day. They had a really good lunch at a local restaurant and had enjoyed the town they went to but said the bike ride really had been rough. It was probably good that I backed out when I did!

The next day we decided to go on a hike to a spot called Mirador where you can get a great view of that side of the island. Mirador is actually part of the inactive volcano, Maderas. The hike wasn't very long, just over an hour, but it's a fairly steep hike and much of the time you're directly in the sun. The landscape was interesting though as in several places, you could see huge lava rocks that were formed when the volcano erupted. The hike was certainly worth it though as the views were really great. You could see both sides of the lake as well as Conception.
On the hike down, we saw some petroglyphs from Pre-Columbian times. The carvings are in relatively good shape and you can still see much of the images.

We left around 2:00 on Sunday after a lunch that took well over an hour to prepare. Paulette gave the staff a few pointers on how to run a hotel. :-)
The return trip was a lot quicker as we rented a taxi to take us to the dock. The ferry ride was a lot more crowded with families and people who had spent the day in Ometepe. We were met at the dock in San Jorge by Paulette's daughter, her friend and the driver. Andrea was planning on leaving us to head to San Juan del Sur and had just missed the last bus, so we offered to drive her to a hostel near the bus station. Just as we pulled through the parking lot at the bus station, Paulette spotted a bus that seemed to be going towards San Juan del Sur. We urged the driver to follow the bus and try to get it to stop. He took on the challenge driving right behind the bus and flashing his lights. After a minute, this seemed to work and the bus slowed down. Paulette yelled out the window asking if the bus was in fact heading where we thought it was and lo and behold it was! We made a quick goodbye and Andrea rushed out of the car. I'm sure she was very happy to have been able to get to San Juan as planned rather then spend the night near the bus station.

The ride home was uneventful aside from a stop to buy watermelons. There was the cutest puppy in the world there. He was so tiny and cute and playful as he nipped at your toes. He barely fit in the palm of my hand. Needless to say, he stayed behind. Foxy would have been jealous.

Overall, it was a nice visit, but I think next time we'd stay somewhere else and stay longer so we could see more.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In case you missed hearing about local artisans...

Last week was another week of school, visiting artisans and relaxing. As of last Thursday, we have 2 more weeks to go (we leave on April 30th)

On Monday, we walked through part of the town in which we are staying. We visited 4 different artisans and while I wish we could support them in some way, two of the artisans produced items that would be too large to bring home and the third didn't have a lot to sell at the moment.

The first woman we met was supporting herself as well as daughters who are deaf and mute. She had a sewing machine that reminded me of my grandmothers. With this she gave sewing lessons to women and girls in the area. She and others also weave purses, vases, and placemats with rafia.

The second artisan we met worked with his family to produce wooden trucks. The trucks come in a variety of sizes from small to very large. We saw one of the large ones which the family uses to transport buckets of water from the nearby water source. The wood is sourced locally and comes from olive trees. All other materials are recycled from bicycles and other items that they find. The trucks are brightly painted and make nice toys for children. While we did see a router, most of the other work is done by hand.

The third family makes large baskets from thin slices of olive wood and plastic strips that are used to wrap cargo boxes. The family used to be able to get the plastic from the airport for free until the airport personnel caught on and now they charge them a fee. The strips of wood are painted in bright pastel colors and the plastic woven through them.

The last artisan was a man who made various object out of hickory. Hickory is a large gourd like seed which he cooks until the outside becomes hard. He then cuts the piece into bowls or cups, paints them and then carves pictures into them. He gave a demonstration of carving. It took just about a minute to carve a medium size maraca. Several of us did buy items from him as they are much easier to transport.

In most of these cases, these people are doing relatively well, but their situation is still hard. Competition can be fierce and a lot of time is spent bringing their wares to a market, often on foot.

On Wednesday we went to the Panama school. This is an elementary school about 20 minutes from the hotel. It's in a remote area of the town and is constantly buffeted by fumes coming from the volcano nearby. It's amazing that people live here as the sulfuric fumes not only corrode anything made of metal within months, but also cause several health risks. The community is quite poor with pineapples being the primary export. The school was in dire straits until Paulette began to support it. While it does get some help from the wives of diplomats, the "Damas" efforts are rather misguided. This group of women thought it was a good decision to put up toilet facilities for the school. While that was a much needed thing, they insisted in putting in flush toilets in an area where there is no water and what water there is is needed for more urgent necessitities. So essentially, these nice toilets are sitting there not being used at all. Another brillant idea was to install a swing set that was almost directly over a crevase. After a few broken bones, they took the swings down. In both cases, Paulette is trying to raise the funds to create a useful toilet and to move the swingset to a more appropriate area. (another ridiculous position the Damas are taking is that Paulette can't use the existing walls and roof of the non-functioning toilet for the new one)

Aside from the political battles that rage around the school, the children are getting a good education with the limited supplies that they receive. All the books, pencils, paper, etc. have come through donations by students at the Mariposa. We sat in on one class of tiny tots (around 4-5 years old) as they were taught addition. Most of them were incredibly attentive and enthusiastic. Of course, like any class, you have the class clown and the kid who always falls asleep.

Near the school was a group of women who make baskets, jewelry and decorations out of magazines. Their work is really nice and I bought a necklace. I may go back to buy a basket. I believe this program was started by the Damas as well, so I guess they did one thing right. :-)

On the way back from our visit, we were followed in the camioneta by a guy on a racing bike. He kept pace with us the entire ride, even up some pretty steep hills. We were pretty impressed. Lance Armstrong better watch out!

Thursday, we went to Masaya again. This time we visited a few other artisans as well as the same guitar shop where Jeff bought his guitar. The first artisan makes these beautiful items out of wood. His workshop seemed rather chaotic, but the results are really lovely. I was disappointed not to be able purchase some wooden cups that I had seen at a craft show, but we maybe able to visit again.

The second artisan made leather saddles, belts and hats. He buys the skins in Leon and his team makes them into rather intricate items.

The third artisan was the hammock maker where we had been before. Unfortunately, most of the stock had been taken to another city to be sold, so the new students weren't able to really see many of the items.

After this, we went to see a show at La Verbana and have dinner. This was fairly similar to the show we saw at the beginning of the stay. The same clown was there this time as well. :-)

I've also included some photos of the nearby beach to give an idea of what the beaches on the Pacific coast are like. While we haven't gone yet, these were
taken by Ximel, a student visiting from Sweden.

On Friday, we left for Ometepe. I'll probably post another entry with pictures in a few days.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Animals of the Mariposa

Technically, I should be studying, but I thought I'd take a short break to show you the animals of La Mariposa. There's a wide variety of "pets" here and many of them are rescued animals.

Our favorite is a cute, little dog called Foxy. She was a street dog in Managua who was supposed to be rescued and given to a family that Paulette knows, but she fell in love and Foxy has been here ever since. I think Paulette will miss her when we sneak her home in our luggage. :-)
I have a love/hate relationship with the guinea hens. They are a bit bizarre looking and make a high-pitched squeaking sound which is really annoying at 4:00am, but for some reason, I still find them amusing.

Lately, I've taken on watching one of the ducks. She's laying her eggs in a terracotta planter. We're afraid that the dogs will eat the eggs, so we're taking all but one away and putting them in a safe place. (My understanding is that after a 20 day gestation period, the eggs will be put under a hen. The ducklings hatch and then are adopted by the hen. At some point, they're taken to a pond where they are taught how to swim) I'd love to see some ducklings following a hen, but we won't be here long enough.
The monkeys are pretty cute as well and it's fun to watch them play together.

I mentioned the pigs before. While there have been a few other escapes, there was only one that equaled the one we participated in.

The birds are plentiful and colorful and like the guinea hens, like to make noise early in the morning.

It wouldn't be right to leave out the dreaded rooster, so here he is.
I also threw in a picture of a cicada. While they aren't pets, they certainly are part of the animal/insect life here. The picture really doesn't do justice to the size of them.

I have a soft spot for the hens whose feathers grow in the opposite direction.

And there is a little white hen that lives in the library. She likes to sit behind the television amongst the DVDs. It's rather funny if you don't know that she's there and you hear clucking coming from the TV.

I shouldn't forget about the cats. There are three of them and we are not pleased with one of them. It's taken to using the plant near our room as a litter box. J.B. went crazy one day trying to find out where the foul odor was coming from. He finally found it and we had the offending item removed. Unfortunately, we had to go through this process for a few days before the cleaners found a way to dissuade the cat from doing it's business there.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Semana Santa

It was a bit quiet this week due to Semana Santa, but we still did some activities. On Sunday, after a day spent washing, reading, writing my blog and generally lounging around, there was a party in the new rancho. A rancho is an open air, thatched roof structure. The party was to celebrate the completion of the ranchero as well as to celebrate the fact that a couple here got their residency papers. The party was pretty funny. At first all the chairs were set up around the edge of the rancho with the staff sitting on one side and the students on the other. This changed a bit after some rum punch was consumed and dinner eaten. Once the dishes were cleared away, Guillermina, Paulette's daughter gave an example of traditional dance. Following that, the music came on LOUD and people started dancing. We were amused to watch Paulette and Ismael (her right hand man) tending the radio. Paulette would keep turning the music down and a few minutes later Ismael would turn it up. I was dragged onto the dance floor a few times. It was fun the first time, but it's hard to know when the songs end, so it seems like you're out there for a 1/2 hour before you can sit down again. After doing that a few times, I was exhausted. J.B. meanwhile snuck away before anyone could get him out there.

Monday, a few of us went into Granada to see an Easter event. Lake Nicaragua is made up of about 365 small islands and on Monday, there was a procession of decorated boats that went to each island where a prayer would be said. We got up with the rooster so that we could be part of the procession. We arrived in Granada in plenty of time so we decided to take the boat over to one of the islands that has a restaurant. Despite the plea for the service to be quick, it was one of the longest meals we've had. The food was not very good and the coffee - a mixture of coffee, milk and tons of sugar, was awful. While we were there the procession started. Some of the boats were really elaborately decorated with flowers and a person dressed to resemble Jesus carrying the cross. In many cases, it was a young boy who took the part. Other boats were more simply decorated. After paying our bill, we joined the other boats and went to a few more islands. Eventually, the novelty wore off and we convinced our tour guide to break from the procession and just do a brief tour of the rest of the lake. We saw some interesting birds and monkeys along the way and an hour later returned to Granada. We walked around the town for a while, had lunch at a cute cafe owned by an American and then headed for home.

Wednesday we went into Masaya again. It was a fairly uneventful trip this time. I bought a hammock chair for the cottage from an artisan that Paulette recommended. After that we went to the "old" market. It's calmer than the last one we went to but the prices are considered to be a bit higher. I did find out on this trip that many of the grocery stores and "Pali" markets are owned by Walmart. As is their usual custom, they buy existing stores, treat the workers horribly and try to drive the small stores nearby out of business. I won't get on my soapbox, but needless to say, I won't be shopping at these stores. There are still local shops and one grocery store that are owned by Nicaraguans where you can buy what you need.

Thursday, we went on a night tour of the Masaya Volcano. The tour was very interesting. We first went to a point where a large cross had been erected. The story goes that the volcano was considered sacred by the indigenous people and had mystical properties. Virgin girls, infants and prisoners were sacrificed to the volcano during various ceremonies. The Spanish hearing about this, came to the volcano and upon seeing the lava, etc. decided it was a gateway to hell. They erected the cross as a way to exorcise the volcano. After climbing up to the cross, we then went to another high point to see another crater. From there, we went to a couple of bat caves. The first cave had a lot of bats flying around and the second cave we were able to walk through, but there weren't many bats. After the bat caves, it was quite dark so we were able to go to the most active crater and see some glowing embers. Unfortunately, it was hard to take pictures that give a sense of the atmosphere.

Friday was a quiet day, although, we did see the procession for Good Friday. This was similar to other processions except the statues were of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene. A fair number of people attended, and I thought it was quite interesting that there were ice cream vendors amongst the crowd. There were also teenage boys dressed as if it were Halloween. They ran up and down the street looking for contributions that could be used for sodas. An interesting take on Good Friday observances.

Saturday, I went with a few other people to Mombacho, another volcano. Jeff stayed home to allegedly study. This trip was very different from Thursday's volcano visit. In order to get to the base station, you take these big Russian open air trucks that go up a VERY steep drive. It's a bit scary, especially since the truck kept stalling at the beginning. I had visions of us rolling backwards and crashing. Fortunately, we made it without incident. The hike took about 4 hours and we went up and down several hills before reaching the top. My legs are killing me today, but it was worth the trip. The views were quite lovely and while we didn't see a lot of wildlife, there was some interesting flora.

Saturday evening we went to a going away dinner for one the guests who had been here for 3 months. The restaurant was a small place down the street and I had some of the best chicken I've ever had. We had an early night due to the hike that day. Sunday will be the normal day of rest before starting another eventful week. At the end of the coming week, we'll be going to Ometepe for the weekend. We're really looking forward to that.