Nica thoughts

View of roadside into Granada from car

View of roadside into Granada from car

As we gear up to leave what has come to feel like a home away from home at La Mariposa in Nicaragua, here is some of what I have come away with.

I can’t say that I miss working, but I definitely miss my work-a lot. So who would have thought that I would come across an opportunity to practice a bit of speech and language therapy in a local clinic? There is a physical therapist who works with children with disabilities, doing home visits, working at the clinic, and a school as well. However, according to her, the closest speech therapist is probably in Managua. A fellow student, Mark, accompanied me twice, and aside from being a physical therapist himself, also served as translator. Meeting Juanita and getting the opportunity to meet and work with her patients was a tremendous learning experience for me, but equally frustrating given that I was trying to do therapy in a language where at this point, I could be diagnosed as having a major language delay myself. What also struck me, but of no surprise, was the amazing work she is able to do with such limited resources…more on this later. I was reminded of what my old grad school professor used to say-that we should be able to do quality therapy with nothing but a pen and paper and to heck with the bubbles, games, toys and stickers. I agree for the most part (although there have been days where a sticker has saved a session and my sanity!) and it was humbling for me to see the room in this clinic.

Being in one country for over a month was an effective reminder that we are NOT on a vacation. The fact that we were able to spend so much time in one place gave us the chance to learn more about and connect more meaningfully with the country’s history and the people who live here. We got to visit the major tourist sites and cities such as Granada, Managua, and Leon (my favorite), as well as local markets, fiestas, schools, and internet cafes, and have traveled by microbus, taxi, Jeep, pick-up truck bed, boat, on foot and by horse. We were able to see and experience the astounding beauty of the landscape. We swam and hiked, zipped over trees, walked through caves, and peered into volcanoes (those sulfur fumes are no joke…thank god for the gas masks). I have learned that I quite enjoy Nicaraguan cuisine (never tried the iguana soup, but no big deal), and that drinking the water or other beverages with ice won’t kill you. We even took salsa and merenge lessons (thank you, Bergman for not laughing-for the rest of you, sorry the pictures seem to be missing). There are malls and mansions, and often a few feet away, a house made of sticks or cardboard, or corrugated tin, but both the houses of a family nonetheless. Nicaragua, like most places, seems to be a medley and mix, and not all the pieces seem to fit, but it is what it is. I highly doubt we would have come to appreciate the complexity of Nicaragua and make such wonderful friends (both locals as well as other travelers like us) had we only been able to come for a few days or a week. Our time here is over, but I already want to come back.

Finally, I never quite realized just how easy it is to forget, ignore, or simply be unaware of how other people live, while we go on with our day to day lives. I am used to reading an article, or seeing a TV special, or hearing about Brangelina’s efforts to save the world, but never have encountered anything first-hand enough to make it personal. I’m used to finding myself feeling sorry for the subjects of these news stories, and thinking how sad I am for them and how fortunate we are, as I turn the page or change the channel and enjoy the luxuries of home. It is almost ridiculous how convenient it is living in a country where food is available in limitless options; where basic needs like clean air and water are not only present, but demanded and produced; especially now with the knowledge that one of our teachers wakes up at midnight somedays and walks for seven hours to get water for his family before coming to teach us our Spanish lessons. We, here as foreigners, talk about where we’ve traveled and what country is next on the list, while our other teacher tells us his dream of visiting another country, any country. Nicaragua has a history of being taken advantage of and stolen from and lied to. It has had most of its resources stripped against their consent by countries, especially the United States, and its people the victims of war, purposeful use of poisonous pesticides and numerous other atrocities. The people we have met and encountered have every right to hate us, or at the very least treat us neutrally or warily. So much of what we have and why we live our lives at home has come directly at the expense of what we have taken from these people. However, even knowing this, everyone has been kind, patient, interested, and welcoming.
Even given the hard facts about the unfair and exploitative relationship between our countries, rather than being blamed or made to feel ashamed, there has only been tolerance and a certain sense of quiet acceptance of the circumstances that have contributed to their current place in the world. As one of our first teachers put it during a discussion about his life, “A life without troubles is not a life” and also simply that “Nicaragua has not had good luck.” From here he went on to teaching us a new verb tense. It is for reasons like this and people like him, that Nicaragua is going to hold a special place in my heart and I am determined to remember everything about my time here. And someday soon, I would like to do something real about it, however small. The wheels are turning……

Here are some resources for anyone inclined to learn more:

Blood of Brothers (by Stephen Kinzer, recommended by our teacher)

The Whiteness of Power: Racism in Third World Development and Aid (Paulette Goudge, our friend who is the owner/director of the La Mariposa where we stayed)

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (Salman Rushdie)

www.fundacionisla.blogspot.com (our friend Jason is involved in and working with this community)

www.affectedmovie.com (another project of Jason’s)

Posted: February 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Mercado Oriental

This afternoon we went to the Mercado Oriental-the largest outdoor market in Central America.  To prepare us for the trip, we were asked to leave watches, any jewelry, and not to bring our cameras.  We were told numerous stories about the market, all of which included the word “dangerous” (and one of them included the words “duct tape.”)  Someone looked up Lonely Planet’s description of it, and it referred to the Mercado as “the heart of darkness of Managua…to be avoided at all costs…only for those on reality suicide shows.”  Splendid.

We arrived at the Mercado through an unassuming street with no inviting fanfare.  The road was dusty and embedded with petrified garbage.  A fruit stand marked our entrance into the market, followed by 30 or 40 more.  It was crowded and the boundaries between venders, walkways, customers, product, and stands blurred endlessly.  I saw a girl slip on a banana peel. Really.

The produce section eventually gave way to the home appliances section, which gave way to the clothing section.  Some how in between we passed weight loss tonics and machetes of the usual sort.  This is Walmart before Walmart.  You can get literally everything imaginable at reduced prices in one space and it seemed to employ all of Nicaragua.

Some section we were in gave way to the meat section.  There were tables of beef parts laid out for display.  Children took naps on the tables adjacent to the meat.  Wait, let me be clearer.  Children took naps on the same tables as the meat, a few inches from flank steaks and mutton and underneath what looked like hanging bacon.  A table of cow eyes stared back at me in disbelief.  A woman stood behind her table, bent at the waist, head fully buried in what looked like beef shoulder, taking a nap.  I said hello to a man who was patiently removing the last remnants of flesh from a cow’s skull.

Mari walked up to me, eyes concentrated elsewhere, and whispered, “I think the guy in the white shirt is casing us.  I’ll watch him.” Promptly, she walked off, eyes still fixed a couple of rows beyond us.  And with Mari electing herself security monitor and apparently offering her protection, I was able to feel completely safe in the Oriental Mercado and take in my surroundings.

Posted: February 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

La Mariposa

We are now a week and a half into our stay at La Mariposa.  We are here for a total of four weeks, the longest stay at a single venue for our entire trip.  For those of you who are wondering what a typical day here is like, this is the blog for that.  We are awoken a few times before the alarm clock goes off at 6:45 by the roosters, guinea fowl, and parakeets (who then set off the dogs).  Believe it or not, I have found this to be much more pleasant than the buzz of the alarm anyway.  I actually have been waking up refreshed instead of groggy, although this might have more to do with going to bed by 9 or 10 most nights.  Anyway, after a quick shower powered by the solar powered panels on the roof, it’s on to breakfast at 7:15.  I have never been a big breakfast person, but here I eagerly anticipate the fresh seasonal fruit (usually locally grown bananas, cantaloupe, papaya, watermelon, and pineapple) with various toppings, but the fruit is so good, I prefer it plain.  The hot breakfast is different nearly everyday, but so far my favorite is the scrambled eggs (fresh from the hen house), with seasoned tomatoes and beans.

Class begins at 8:00.  Two hours of conversation, a break, and then 2 hours of grammar with another teacher.  All the classes are held outdoors or in open classrooms.  Since the weather has been perfect, it doesn’t get better than that (unless you happen to be sitting next to the plant that on occasion produces the most foul smelling odor, and has disrupted a class or two).  We were in for a shock yesterday (our first day of week two), to find that our conversation class with our new teacher was 100% en espanol.  I guess that means we are improving, but by the time it was over Jeff was mute and my head was about to explode.

After a satisfying lunch, we have several options; participate in the afternoon activity (anything from lectures/discussions, day trips, cooking classes, etc.), study our Spanish, explore the town and nearby towns, chill out in a hammock and read/nap, or walk around the garden and hang out with the monkeys, pigs, turtles, birds, and dogs (I finally can tell all seven of them apart!).  The staff is incredible, the guests/students are all super nice with awesome stories to share.  We often hang out on the terrace and have a beer before dinner.  Then it’s usually off to bed fairly early to start the process again.

Posted: February 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Monkey Salutations

There once was a lake in Nicaragua.  Let’s call it Lake Nicaragua.  Next to Lake Nicaragua  sat a big, angry volcano named Mombacho.  One day a long time ago,  Mombacho got so angry at its brother, Little Mombacho, that it blew its top and sent rock and ash into poor Lake Nicaragua.  In fact, there was so much rock that they formed islands in the lake, 365 of them. One of these islands became home to 4 friendly, cheeky monkeys and became “Monkey Island.”

Posted: February 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments »

Quick Thanks

To our dear friends Nannette, Mark and to their extended loved ones in Diriamba,

Thank you for showing us Nicaragua in every sense; its culture, its natural beauty, its kindness and its humanity.  We didn´t know what to expect in coming here, but you´ve helped us experience your world in such a way that despite the relative short time we´ve been here and with you, we´re saddened to be leaving it but grateful.  Grateful for the sightseeing, the fiesta, the cuisine, and the overwhelming hospitality you´ve showered on us, but even more grateful for the conversations, the willingness to create shared experiences (like zip lining) and the sense and comforts of home.

We feel forever indebted to you two personally, as wellas to Diriamba and Nicaragua, for all that we have gained through our visit and we hope to repay it to you all if even in some small way.  We also hope to see you all( people and country) soon enough.

Your “Chinita y Chinito,”

Mari and Jeff

Posted: January 30th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Treinta Uno en Nicaragua

Turning 31 today actually felt more like turning 30 again, if you subscribe to the fact that one must celebrate each new decade “with a bang”. In my case, this year it was more like an adrenaline-fueled scream down the zip line over the Nicaraguan jungle canopy on Volcano Mombacho.  Wheeee!!! Mark, Nannette, Jeff and I were picked up in Granada and driven up the bumpiest of hills towards the top of the volcano. There, we suited up and after a brief instruction and safety course, it was up to the first platform, several stories above the ground. The first zip was obviously the scariest, but because of that, probably the most exhilarating. Each subsequent zip because more and more fun and I allowed myself to look around at the amazing canopy and scenery and to fully enjoy the moment. After the eighth and final zipline, it was time to go back down to earth. “How?” you ask? By rappelling all the way down! We had three options in regards to speed: slow, medium, or rapido (which translated in this particular case to “free fall”). Jeff went first and chose the last option. WHOOSH. There he was, standing facing me and within an instant was on the ground, looking a little dazed, but in one piece. Next up, me. I had been gearing up for this moment since we first heard about it during the introduction, but all of a sudden, “slow” seemed the most obvious and prudent option. I yelled down to Jeff, “How was it??? What option should I choose?” hoping he would be the one to push me to do the free fall since I wasn’t sure I could make myself say the words. Instead, he said, “Do whatever you feel comfortable with!” Great. Thanks. Such a social worker answer (just kidding—that was a just a joke, if there are any social workers reading this). So I took a big breath and said, “Rapido!!” After screaming my way down, I was SO glad I did.

Once we were all earthbound again, we headed back to Mark and Nannette’s where they and their extended network of friends surprised me with a delicious pineapple birthday cake, complete with candles and singing…in English. Thank you everyone. What a day.  :)

Posted: January 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Spanish School

Our first Spanish class in Nicaragua was…interesting. We’ll be here learning for a month in what has promised to be a pretty intense learning experience; 4 hours of instruction daily, low teacher-student ratios for extra attention—immersion. And classes start at 8 am in whatever time zone this is.
There are five of us in the Beginner Class today and it’s clear that regardless of our adulthood, professional degrees, and perceived status, the full range of emotions that accompany the first day of school are on full display. Anxiety, excitement, fearfulness, angst. Mari’s as giddy as, well, a schoolgirl. We learn introductions and typical responses. And then about twenty minutes into our 80 hours of instruction our teacher indicates that we should follow him on a walk into town. Field trip. Viaje de campo.
The five of us followed our teacher trying to stay close to him in case he tried to give our walk a purpose by bridging the Spanish words to what our eyes were seeing. Instead, we walked in a drainage ditch, mostly in silence—past the burning garbage, past the blooming native flowers, past the smoking Volcano Masaya seen in the distance.
We ended up at the house of our teacher’s friend, an open welcoming man. It was a typical Nicaraguan home made of cement blocks, the walls unpainted. We were described as Spanish students and the man proclaimed that he was also a student, trying to learn English. Our teacher translated for him, “if only there was a way for us to learn faster. Maybe I can exchange my Spanish for your English.” We responded, wanting to communicate with our host and continue this conversation (really any conversation) and so almost all in unison we replied with uncommon gusto “si!” as utilized from our earlier lesson. The conversation, despite all of our best efforts seemed to come to a lull after that and so there we sat, in silence, looking around the room for anything we knew and could translate to start a new line of dialogue. Como se dice “nice floor tiles” en Espanol? There’s a lovely ceramic Virgin Mary statue that’s always a solid ice breaker, if only I knew how to say “virgin”…or “statue” and assuming Mary stays constant across cultures.
We were all temporarily relieved when the man wanted to share Nicaraguan culture with us through its music and played a dvd of music videos. For the next half hour, we sat there watching the equivalent of the Nicaraguan boy band and women dressed in bikinis shaking it. Our teacher translated the music for us for full effect, “I touch her here. I touch her there.” We dutifully looked on at our improvised curriculum and responded “si.”
Our next lesson, via the next video from the group Los Bandititos had our teacher employing teaching by rote. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica” he recited from the song. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica <crazy, crazy, crazy for you girl>” we repeated. “Loco, loco, loco para vos, chica.” he corrected us with the annunciation on “CHI-CA.” We repeated.
Eventually it was time for our break, so we thanked our host for his kindness and left. He told us how happy he was to be able to open up his home to us.
As we began our walk back to the school, our teacher stopped us and said, “Please, I must ask you something, and please, don’t be offended, ok?” We responded with the tools we’ve been taught thus far—“si.” “Do you like to drink Cerveza?” he asked at what was now 10 am.
I tried to reply that I do like to drink in the social sense, but that I tend to wait later in the day, but you know, when in Rome I’ll do as the Romans do. I tried to tell him that I didn’t wish to drink during class time, but that I believed this really was good cerveza weather and that I hoped we all could grab a round in the future. Instead, I answered “si.”

Posted: January 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

Intro to Nica


I caught a glimpse of blue-grey sky through the opening of the thatched roof as I sank back in the brightly colored hammock in the strong breeze, and yesterday’s travel headaches slipped away. All is well once again. Today is our first day in Nicaragua, and so far it’s been more than I hoped it would be with the promise of more to come. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Mexico City, this is the perfect second stop. We are staying for the next four days with Mark and Nannette (family friends of Jeff’s) who graciously offered their beautiful house in the town of Diriamba, where they will soon be joining us. In the meantime, Jose Luis has been more than kind, driving us around to different towns and sights, and practicing his English (which is pretty good), while we try our Spanish (still absolutely beyond embarrassing). This morning we went to see the crater lake created by a volcano, which was breathtaking-unfortunately neither the pictures nor any description of mine can do it justice. We might go back down to the water for a swim one of these days. We read in our guide book (given to us by a fellow stranded traveler at the airport yesterday) that the water has healing properties and the sulfur wards off mosquitoes (guess we’re gonna be smelling gooood). Jeff is looking forward to seeing some monkeys, jaguars, and snakes, which are all local inhabitants, on the way down. Me-just the monkeys. Second stop of the day was the active volcano in Masaya. Super hot. Not the melt-your-shoes kind of hot that we had heard about, but definitely steamy, extremely windy (explains the crazy hair in pictures) and our second breathtaking view of the day. Stopped by a local market in what once was a castle. Spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around in the hammocks in the backyard at the house. Aaaaaahhh. Our homecooked meals have been delicious. At some point, I may request the local specialty-iguana soup, but haven’t reached that point yet. So far loving the tiny bit of Nicaragua I’ve experienced, and definitely looking forward to what comes next.

Posted: January 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Nicaragua | Tags: , , | 4 Comments »