All Roads Lead to Cola

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It’s 90F, 90% humidity, it’s noon, the sun is high and scorching. All you want is a cool, sweet, liquid to combat your sweaty, thirsty, fatigue….soda.

And it’s readily available for you! In a plastic bag on your bus ride or at the nearest pulperia (corner store). I am still surprised by the remote corners I see houses with soda ad murals painted on the sides and the tiny rural stores where over half of the space is filled with soda alone.  It’s common where I am to see people riding along on bicycles with their single grocery item being a 2-liter bottle of gaseosa.

Sadly, a majority of Nicaraguan sugarcane workers suffer from the often fatal Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional causes. The exact cause is currently unknown, but this type of the disease is prevalent in hot lowland climates among heavy agricultural laborers, especially among sugarcane workers.  These laborers harvest sugar in the very same conditions that might make you want to reach for a soda. Companies may also distribute sugar-hydration packets to workers during the day who may then go home to drink soda or alcohol at night. Hmmm.

La Isla Foundation, a León-based organization that I taught fundraising yoga for, works to help these Nicaraguan communities where almost 70% of male sugarcane workers get this disease, dying from it as young as age 25. Take a few minutes and check out the work they’re doing and see the faces of those affected.

I call on this information in my personal battle with the “white devil” (maybe you share this battle?) as I work to be more mindful about what I consume, where it’s coming from, and what it’s taken to arrive in front of me for my consumption.

Butchers & Body Talk

Pedro Isidro Lopez Navarro

Pedro Isidro Lopez Navarro

Meet Pedro Isidro Lopez Navarro (and don’t even try to not use his full name).

He’s a Sanjuaneño (man from San Juan del Sur), a carnicero (butcher), and he points with his lips.

Maybe more interesting than learning the spoken language of another culture is deciphering the physical language, and the lip point is one of my favorite things about Nicaraguans.

Initially perceived as an oddly timed mid-word pucker, Nicas use their lips to refer to someone or something nearby without pointing.

It never ceases to impress or entertain me their ability to do this while speaking, and the way it changes their facial features and the sound of the word is really marvelous.  I can now hear when someone is pointing with their lips without seeing them.

Try it!  It seems to challenge anglophones, supporting the idea that English speakers have comparatively lazy mouths and faces.  That’s why we must combat our facial lethargy with foga, yoga for your face.

What I Really Want From You

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I was thinking about death, storage spaces and gifts. I realized that my most memorable gift was a card that a friend had a random stranger sign because it showed how much they got me (it still causes me a hearty guffaw to this day).

More thoughts followed and I’m thrilled to share them here via Elephant Journal!!

Let me know what you think! And share if you’d prefer to receive more mindful gifts as well!

Jiquilillo

…tranquil, tourist sparse, sea turtles, incredible sunsets, empty beaches, emptier waves.
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Some village residents.

After Somoto Canyon I was back in León for one night to collect my things and get on the road.  First stop, Jiquilillo.  “Where?” was the response I usually got when people asked me where I was going next… and that was exactly what I wanted.  The small fishing village on the northwest coast is not a major tourist destination and if it wasn’t for a chance recommendation from an acquaintance (thanks Ellie!) who called this place “paradise” I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting it.

After a day of inexpensive travel, the chicken bus dropped me right at my destination, Rancho Esperanza.  I was delighted to be greeted by three rambunctious children climbing trees and picking fruit.  I didn’t catch all of their Spanish but I did catch “la boom”.  They thought I was there to surf the nearby world class, hollow, beach break.  I was flattered that something about me made them think I was a decent surfer when really I was still catching the wash.  The rancho itself was a welcome sight after a long day of traveling with its beautifully muraled cabañas, luscious foliage, beachfront location…and hammocks!!!  I was ready to trade in the rocking chairs of the city for my dear, beloved, soul mate, the hammock.

Inside the main rancho

Inside the main rancho

I immediately relaxed in this wonderful place and was especially excited to stay at “Jiquilillo’s hostel with a conscience”.  The owner has spent many years living in and giving back to the community and hosts volunteers who do the same.  The boys I had met in the trees were part of the rancho’s “Kids Club” where volunteers spend the afternoons with local children who come to play games, do crafts, and learn English.  There were 3 volunteers staying at the rancho and no other tourists.  This along with the family-style dinners and the ever-present children who clearly felt at home, made me feel right at ease here.  In León I had become accustomed to the luxury of wi-fi of which there was none at the rancho.  As such, I spent most of my time swimming, reading, surfing, swimming, hammocking, beaching, yoga-ing, moving, and breathing.  Here I fulfilled my dream of watching the sunset while floating on a surfboard and it was glorious.  And so my 5 days there feel like 5 weeks.  It was a nice change from the non-stop noise and activity of León to find a place where I would swim and be the only one swimming.  Or surf and be the only one surfing.  It was kind of surreal to be somewhere so beautiful and feel like I had a private beach that I only occasionally shared with a handful of locals (a result of traveling during the rainy season).

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Checking turtle nests

A truly special experience was swimming in the ocean with freshly hatched endangered sea turtles as they took their first tiny strokes in their new vast home.  One of the volunteers mentioned he had visited a turtle rescue project up the beach so I decided to investigate.  I walked 30 minutes north towards Los Zorros where I was able to -for zero dollars- meet with the local volunteer run organization that rescues endangered sea turtles.  Started by a retiree who lives in Jiquillillo and according to him “had too much free time”, the project has two paid employees, a local father and son, with everyone else working as volunteers.  The employees and volunteers patrol the beach at night along with dozens of poachers who shine flashlights around the sand waiting for turtles to come lay their eggs.  Typically then the poachers sell the eggs to restaurants and stores.  Eating sea turtle eggs is common enough that some TEFL friends saw the local they lived with eat turtle eggs several times and contrastingly you can sport a bumper sticker to tout that you don’t eat turtle eggs.  Speaking with one of the employed locals, I learned that the organization actually pays less for the eggs than restaurants, but a few years ago poachers started noticing that fewer and fewer turtles were returning to lay eggs and realized they needed to invest in their own job security by selling the eggs to rescue organizations sometimes as well.  So these local men stay up most of the night  buying from poachers then the volunteers set to carefully burying eggs and waiting and occasionally digging up nests to check for signs of life when it should be close to hatching time.

Local children come to meet the newest turtles

Local children come to meet the newest turtles

I was able to observe the checking of the nests a couple of times when there were half a dozen or so hatchlings each time (I was there a bit early for the really large batches to hatch that might include hundreds of turtles to release).  Then the hatchlings are collected in a bin and given a bit of time to wake up before being taken down to the water where they walk their first steps on the beach so their natal beach will imprint and they can return to lay their own eggs someday, a process called natal homing.  Apparently they have three days worth of energy to swim non-stop without eating so you can’t wait too long to release them.  They swim a bit in a bin filled with ocean water to get prepared and then the giant 6’4″ employee has the task of taking the open top bin out past the powerful waves to give the babes a head start at survival.  I joined him and swam out with the tiny creatures as they headed out to start their lives (hopefully) until the current became too strong and it was prudent to swim back in.

Another awesome Jiquilillo sunset.

Another beautiful Jiquilillo sunset.

A few minutes later it started to rain. Instead of taking shelter and waiting out the storm I began my 30 minute walk back to the rancho in the hard, driving rain.  But the water was warm, so warm that it provided the warmest, longest, most nourishing, and cathartic shower I had had in 9 weeks. And when it started to really pour I jogged a ways. And when lightening started striking in the ocean nearby I walked again and enjoyed nature’s sensory orchestra. A few short minutes after arriving back at the rancho lightning struck a tree on the edge of the property where I had just walked and within a few minutes more locals cut down the torched tree for precious firewood. Not long after this the power went out.

Mmmmm

Mmmmm

Earlier in the day I had told a neighboring comedor I would like to eat fish there that night (now that I could choose to be by the ocean I would and since I could choose to eat its fruits I did so often).  I tried to eat fish that were not caught using explosives, a common practice in the area, since as with poaching endangered sea turtle eggs the need to feed one’s family in an impoverished place with limited opportunities tends to take precedence over environmental sustainability.  So, power outage and all I walked a short ways down the road and followed the lights of candles that were covered by 2-liter bottles to protect them from the wind. Eating at one of these places is kind of like you’re paying someone to eat dinner at their house on what is essentially their porch. The resident children, of which there were more than a handful, ate their dinner by candlelight as well and were the only other customers that evening other than myself and a friend from the rancho. As typical, the fish was cooked whole and served with rice and fried plantains and it was delicious. The charming ambience, gracious hospitality, toothsome local fare, and all-round memorable experience was well worth the less than $4 that I paid for it.

Neighboring pigs come to root around near my cabaña.

Neighboring pigs come to root around near my cabaña.

The power stayed out for 24 hours. Rumor was a bus slipped on the muddy road during the storm and took out the power pole. But no matter, life without electricity was surprisingly…not that different. I would still wake with the light of the sun at 5am to the sounds of the roosters crowing and the pigs rooting around outside my cabaña (after two months in a city I relished “wildlife” that was not a late-night borracho).  My food was still cooked over a fire. You don’t need an electrical current to read, surf, or lie in hammocks and when you happen to walk by probably the only gelato stand in Jiquilillo you might get a discounted rate on their melty goods. I can see how people who weren’t blessed with a high boredom threshold could have gotten antsy here but I counted the power outage as a blessing as it postponed me booking my flight to my next destination and gave me another day of surfing and stillness.

The main rancho

Two days after I left this wonderful place a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck off the southern coast of El Salvador, just 67km WSW of Jiquilillo. My friends who were there later recounted how terrifying it was to be awakened by the sound of sirens and to be told to get your passport because a tsunami is coming. The owner of Rancho Esperanza evacuated his family, the few guests and volunteers in his pick-up truck and picked up some of the local children along the way as most local families do not have a vehicle to evacuate with.  I am happy to report that the tsunami did not hit and though there was flooding, no lasting damage was sustained by this blissful locale.

Cañón de Somoto

…a peaceful yet active exploration of a pristinely beautiful canyon hosted by local people. Incredible.

I began my Nicaraguan excursions with a 3-day backpacking trip to Somoto Canyon, which is one of the best decisions I’ve made on my travels. I had to wait a few extra days in León to go with a tour group but the trip turned out to be one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever done. I went with Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run tour company that donates almost all of what you pay to local organizations working with at-risk youth. In fact, they donate a portion of their proceeds to the very same organization that I volunteered with and their volunteers also spend time working in the local organizations. Brilliant.

Our first day was spent navigating the inexpensive chicken buses towards Somoto to ensure more of our money would go to the community. We stopped in Estelí for an interesting tour of a cigar factory where I was amazed at the amount of work that goes into making a single cigar and overwhelmed by the smell of tobacco leaves. We then put on a show for the locals as we prepared and ate our lunch at the station while waiting for the bus.

Our digs the first night

When we arrived at the local finca (farm) where we would stay the night we were greeted by the giant smile of our gracious host, Henry. Henry has a small hospedaje (lodging) and comedor (restaurant) on his farm where he lives with 8 family members in a lovely campo setting. He showed us to an empty farm house where we set up our tents while his children climbed the trees nearby. I loved that cows, turkeys, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, rabbits and the babies of nearly all of those ran amuck on about a quarter of an acre.  The family prepared us a delicious dinner and one gentlemen showed me how he had trained the cat to jump through his arms…quite impressive!

Tortillas!

Tortillas!

The next morning I was excited to try my hand at making tortillas under the tutelage one of Henry’s relatives, a good-humored woman who had no qualms about laughing at an inferior product. I escaped her laughter and apparently impressed her with my tortilla-making skills as she was showing mine off to her family. Success! We tasted the fresh milk that others opted to squeeze from cows that morning as well as our tortilla attempts with breakfast.  Then we met our guides, one was Henry’s brother from the finca, put on our life vests and hopped on a bus to make our way to the entry point into the canyon.

Somoto Canyon is located near the northern border of the country and was carved by the Río Coco that left white stone walls up to 150m high and as narrow as 5m. Discovered in just 2004, it is protected as a national monument and as such contained the cleanest water I had seen in Nicaragua with an exquisite milky-turquoise hue (the photos don’t do it justice).  We entered the canyon and hiked for a bit before dipping into the cool water and letting the current carry us.  The life vests seemed a bit excessive at first but I quickly realized they made a world of difference as they allowed me to float “lazy river” style while gazing up at the awesome rock walls.  In this way we made our way down the river, swimming rapids (so fun!), stopping to play with spiders that could skim the surface, hiking, and jumping off cliffs. There was one mandatory 5m jump with options at various points for 6, 10, and 18m jumps.  I maxed out at 10m with only the guides and a young Dutch gent jumping from 18m.  About half-way down we stopped to do some repelling off a 30m wall…so much fun I did it twice!  And after about  6 hours we arrived at some small boats and were ferried by locals a short distance to complete our trek with another hour’s walk.  One of the most wonderful things about the adventure was that we didn’t come across any other tour groups or people which added to the uniqueness of such a day. (Note: I did not have my camera for the hike so I’m borrowing from others.)

Adorable. If you could hear him talking...

Adorable. If you could hear him talking…

After another scrumptious meal prepared by Henry’s family, we hiked up to a mirador (viewpoint) that overlooks the canyon. Along the way we encountered some delightful, loquacious children who were heading to their home that was not far from our campsite. They were incredibly animated and kind and keen to have me come rest and eat at their home, an invitation I was sorry to decline. Their mother was hiking with them, the boy of five rode the pony and mother walked because she said she liked the exercise and it showed as she appeared to be well into her 60s at least and it was a strenuous hike.

The digs the second night

The digs the second night

We arrived at a covered deck at sunset where I saw my first fireflies!  What divine creatures these are!  They should be everywhere, always.  We settled into our tents and hoped that roosters would not start crowing starting at 1am in this remote spot as they had at the finca the night before.

Sunrise at the mirador

We woke early (but no roosters!) to watch the sunrise over the river we had floated down.  After a tasty oatmeal-extravaganza breakfast prepared by the guides we began our hike down to the finca and our long journey back to León.  Being a Sunday, transport was limited which meant waiting for some time at the bus station. Some of my fellow travelers had had enough of this waiting and when the microbus arrived they engaged in the shove-fest to pile on. I have never seen people, locals and elderly included, fight so much to get onto transportation but they clearly did not want to wait the 2+ hours for the next bus.  I decided to hang back with a few of the others and enjoy the experience as one of the precious jewels of “Nica life” that have made my wanderings so remarkable.

adios a León

I completed the 4-week TEFL certification course with ITA Nicaragua on September 5th, 2014.  It was a very busy month, but I really enjoyed the course and practicum teaching here in León.  After just one month, I felt ready to teach English in any setting.  The program exceeded my expectations and I would highly recommend it if you’re interested in doing something like this. Read here for more info and get in touch with questions and for a discount!

Completion of the TEFL course allowed me to start teaching in the community with a program called Proyecto Barrilete, an after school program for underprivileged youth in León.  Barriletes is a place for children to play, learn, and eat lunch (for many this is their only meal).  Children may also come to the program because they are unable to be cared for by their parents who are battling drug/alcohol addictions or have had to leave in order to find work, in which case they have either been left with relatives or live at Proyecto Barriletes that houses an average of 13 children.

TEFL alumni teach the children English as a skill to provide them with more opportunities later in life. Being as Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and Barriletes is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, it was difficult to see the conditions in which many of the children live. I am grateful for my brief time with the project and that alumni volunteers living in León will continue working to help improve health, living, and education standards for these children.  Check out Sarah’s GoFundMe page here!

Y ahorita, me voy a explorar Nicaragua!

the land of drinks in bags

Street cart with fried plantains in bags to be topped with salad.

Gallo pinto and fritanga and nacatamales, oh my! Hungry? Scrumptious morsels are never more than a stones throw away in the city here. Open your front door and wait a few minutes and someone will probably pass by peddling something fruity or fried.

Street food carts

Street food carts

Or start walking and peruse the plentiful street food carts or roadside, wood-fueled deep fryers (open flame + hot oil + pedestrian traffic = never allowed in the states). If you still haven’t found anything that strikes your fancy keep walking and start peering into the many open doorways (many places don’t have overt signs). You have roughly a 50% chance that the people on which you peep will be selling something and another 50% chance that something will be edible.  In fact, many of the people are so hospitable that even if they aren’t selling something I reckon you could probably holler, “Buenas!” and tell them you’re looking to buy something to eat and they’d whip you up something delicious for cheap.

Subtiava Market. The meat smelled fresh. Real fresh. I did not try it.

Traveling? Don’t worry! When you take the chicken bus between cities at least a dozen people will be on and off selling you enchiladas, fried chicken, soda, juice, popcorn, soda, cookies, soda…again a lot like being at a baseball game (except for the child inappropriate movies playing on the flat screen).  And don’t worry about sleeping through your opportunity to eat, the decibel level at which the saleswomen announce their wares indicates that they are unaware their customers are all trapped and within a 4 foot radius.

I wanted my iced coffee to go.

If you decide to go to a restaurant don’t be in a hurry because most things are freshly made to order. If you order a drink be prepared for sugar to be added.  If you want a drink to go plastic cups are expensive and may be an additional cost so try a bag! Bags of drinks abound here, mainly cacao, brightly colored liquids with fruit pieces in them, or water. It’s common to see people selling cold water in bags instead of bottles. Now it’s not fair to just say “drinks” in bags because all of the other foods in bags will feel left out.  I can’t not mention that I’ve seen people selling rice in bags and people then eating it with their fingers on the bus. I continue to be surprised by the small things here. Like, first, how rice might be an on-the-go type of snack suited for carrying in a bag and, second, a finger food to be eaten while packed elbow-to-ass on a chicken bus.  But hey…when in Rome!

Subtiava Market

What exactly is Nicaraguan cuisine? Usually not seasoned or spicy, likely fried, and maybe cheesy. Lots of gallo pinto, fruit, fried chicken, plantains, and soda. I think soda must course through the veins of the people here as I’ve spoken with people who have seen babies fed Coca Cola by the spoonful.

Subtiava Market. These fish were fresh as were the tiny, live crabs.

You can get street food or a basic meal for $2-3 in León or you can splurge and spend $6-8 at a fancier restaurant. Stick to the market or people who sell produce on the street to eat local and cheap.  I bought 3 tomatoes, 5 bananas and and onion for $.50!  Don’t waste your time looking for things in the market like kale, spinach, arugula, or other such leafy greens.  “Salad” here often means a cabbage-vinegar mix (coleslaw-like) or some combination of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.  Local veggies are primarily squash relatives or things you would eat in an omelet.

A small taste (ha! get it!?) of the local fare…

  • Gallo pinto.  The local rice and bean variation.  Yum.
  • The “Nica” breakfast. Gallo pinto, 2 fried eggs, a fresh corn tortilla, some medium-firm salty cheese, and a sautéed plantain.  Mmmm.

    Mmmm...the "Nica" breakfast

    Mmmm…the “Nica” breakfast

  • BANANAS!  Fruits!  And the smoothies and juices that are made from them!  Bananas are everywhere and cost $.04 a piece.  Being a banana lover I find the small bananas here always perfectly ripe.  Pineapple, papaya, watermelon, and cantaloupe are also common.
  • Slices of mango in a bag.  For $.38 someone will sell you a mango AND take the work out of cutting around that pesky pit for you!
  • The “fritanga”. Mecca for grilled meats and fried veg (potatoes with cheese, zucchini).  Cheap and tasty.

    The famous fritanga

    The famous fritanga

  • Quesillos/repochetas.  Open-faced, quesadilla-like dishes on a corn tortilla topped with crema (sour cream but less sour) and maybe some salad on top.
  • Nacatamales. Similar to Mexican tamales but stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onions, and meat, and minus the sauce.

    Nacatamales

    Nacatamales

  • Plantains. In any variation..tostones, tajadas, all good to me.  You will likely see thinly sliced plantain chips sold in bags with salad (coleslaw) on top.
  • Pio Quinto. Nicaraguan dessert of cinnamon-dusted custard atop cake soaked with lots and lots of rum.

    Pio Quinto

    Pio Quinto

  • Rosquillas.  These locally made cookies are all the rage and sold everywhere.  They aren’t very sweet, almost more like a cracker.
  • Coffee.  There are lots of coffee farms here.  The coffee is delicious.
  • Leche agria. A very sour yogurt that locals eat hot or cold with a corn tortilla. A bit sour for my liking.
I tried this "40-year-old" bean soup (and also cow udder). Pretty good for being so old.

I tried this “40-year-old” bean soup (and also cow udder). Pretty good for being so old.

It took some adjusting to get used to the victuals here and the not-so-abundant leafy greens.  I eventually learned to assume that things I would pay to eat in the city were either fried, sugar-filled, or dowsed with dairy.  This assumption has helped me to successfully navigate the culinary world here that I now find pretty delectable.