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Nicaragua

Tica Bus

We left Lago Apoyo for Managua,and went from a decidedly upscale place to the opposite. It had the advantage of being close to the bus station since the bus left the next day at 5 AM. for the two day,19 hour ride back to Guate. It was either that, or a $400 flight. The bus itself was good one, relatively new, air conditioned, with bathrooms that worked, sort of, a rarity in Central America. There were assigned seats and people were not standing in the isles. Tica has its headquarters in Costa Rica, which may explain why the bus was in good shape. It was filled with young foreigners who could pony up the $35 admission price. Not much by first world standards, but expensive compared to chicken bus prices. The ride was grueling because of the poor roads, and the long, hot border stops in three different countries, Honduras, El Salvador and then Guatemala. The only food available was at these border crossings, and mostly it was greasy and not especially clean. After crossing the Honduran border, we were stopped again by the military for a drug check. We had to unload all of our luggage from underneath the bus. They lined up the men and woman separately, and then poked around our luggage with their machine guns. Finally they brought in dogs for a final sniff. It wasn't a strip search, but it seemed designed to intimidate.

The bus stopped for the night in San Salvador, and left the next morning at 5AM. Although we could stay at the small hotel at the station, it seemed overpriced and basic, so a few of us took a cab to another place a few blocks away that sounded better. Bad choice. The cab actually drove into the courtyard of the hotel, where they closed and locked the gates behind us, before we got out. Nuevo Panamerico, although described as newly renovated, turned out to be a dump, but by that time we were committed, exhausted by the 13 hour ride. When Nanette saw that the bathroom was not particularly clean, and had a cracked window so that you could see into the courtyard, she had a meltdown. Crying, and blaming me for dragging her to this place, she refused to go anywhere and said she wasn't hungry. I needed to eat, and after checking with the desk that it was safe to walk a few blocks around the hotel, went out with the two other guys that had come with us. There were a group of street weary prostitutes hanging on the corner, and the outdoor market at dusk was noisy and teaming with people. There were places to buy fruit and pupusas, a kind of cornmeal tamale stuffed with cheese or beans. We ate a few of these, and I brought one back for Nanette along with a couple of avocados. By now she was calmer, and we managed to get through an uncomfortable night on the lumpy, but fortunately bedbug free, mattress. In retrospect, we should have taken the cab to another part of town and just gotten up a bit earlier to catch the bus.

In the morning, another 7 hours on the bus got us back to Guatemala City. The coda, after 19 hours of watching shot-em-up videos, was the ad they showed us as we arrived, of two old geezers reminiscing and bragging about the comforts and wonders of taking Tica Bus to various parts of Central America. Our friends, Elizabeth and Robert, had invited us to stay with them for the couple of days when we returned to Antigua, and we took a taxi there, instead of waiting for the chicken bus. It felt great to be back to the relative comforts of their little condo. The next day we watched the Diablo festival, a local ritual when people burn a straw effigy of the devil, and set off fireworks. That was a nice finale to our time Guatemala.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:08 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged transportation Comments (1)

En Vista del Mar y Lago: In View of the Sea and Lake

Heading south for San Juan del Sur, we finally hoped to get in our laid back beach vacation. Don't stop there, we heard. Go down 15-20k to Playa Majagual. You'll find a beautiful and largely wild place to swim, and yes, the water's warm. We took a two hour, 2nd class bus ride to Rivas,previous site of Vanderbilt's stagecoach service, and still a crossroads. From there another hour on a different bus got us to San Juan. Arriving in the mid-day heat, we stopped at Wavy Dave's for a beer. and asked about the next boat to Majagual. The boat ran infrequently, but for $15 US a piece, he knew a guy who'd take us by road. San Juan is in the midst of its own building and land boom, complete with another Century 21 office, and new houses and hotels sprouting up on the hills near the water. About an hour later, our American driver showed up in a beat up old truck, and took us down a dirt track which was dry and dusty at first, but as we headed further into the jungle, there were big puddles and mud. The truck lurched wildly from side to side, shocks totally gone. We arrived covered with dust, not long before sunset, at the Bahia Majagual Lodge, a small backpacker resort, complete with concrete cabins and a thatched roof bar and restaurant.

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From there, we headed on foot to Matilda's, a small guest house further up the road. Definitely funky, the wood and concrete house was festooned with shells and Christmas lights, and had a few other guests, most of whom were camping in the grassy sand that separated the house from the beach. Though our room faced the water, the window was tiny, but at least you could hear the surf.

"No meals served, but I do sell beer and soda," the dueno told us, hanging our hammock over the concrete patio. "Dos cervezas por favor," Nanette said, as she plunked down on the hammock.

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We made our way back to the Majagual Lodge for dinner, walking back along the road with our head lamps. Traffic was not a consideration. We sat at the bar, watching the last pink daylight fade over the water as Bob Marley sang on the stereo. There were perhaps 10 other people there, mostly European surfers it seemed. Ah, after the second Pina Colada it felt as though we had finally arrived at our tropical paradise. The food was not bad, curried chicken and some kind of fish, although they were out of more than half the stuff on the menu. Manana they said. Yeah, that's right Manana. We walked back to our room underneath a very starry sky.

The beach lived up to billing. Practically deserted, the white sand stretched for a half mile or so with volcanic rocks jutting into the water on one side, and a small cliff with cacti growing out of the rocky soil on the other. There were 2 or 3 upscale new houses that had recently been built a few hundred feet into the woods behind the beach, but other than that, nothing. There were even a few trees, which provided much needed afternoon shade. Our routine was to spend an hour or two on the beach in the morning, have lunch at the Lodge and then a siesta in the hammock, before going back out for another 2 to 3 hours or so in the latter part of the afternoon. The sea was very changeable. At times very calm and ideal for swimming, at others the surf was huge, with ten foot waves and a nasty undertow. Luckily, we had plenty of time to pick and choose when to go in the water.

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Sitting on the beach at night, without any lights nearby, and looking up at the milky way was one of our favorite times, and so was looking at the sun setting over the Pacific every evening.

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The weather was ideal. After a few days we got to know the other guests. There was a a young German girl, camping and traveling alone for a few months, as well as two Israelis, also alone. Yigal, a surfer who had finished his stint in the army and was traveling for a year, often the thing to do for young Israelis after they get out of the armed forces, and Sarah, a few years older, had taken time off from her teaching job to travel until her money ran out. A few times, we all chipped in for food to cook meals together on the outdoor fire pit. This provided a welcome change from the food at the Lodge. Sitting around the fire eating, drinking beer, talking about upcoming plans, and ogling the stars, was the primary entertainment. One evening just before sunset, I clamored up over the rocks on the beach and brought my camera. It had been somewhat overcast on that day, but as a result, the clouds created a spectacular sunset. In between tokes of weed, supplied by the Israelis, I took shot after shot of the rocks, as the sun dropped below the water line.

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I just couldn't stop shooting, and had to remind myself that the tide was coming in, and I needed to get back before the rocks I crossed were submerged.

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After a week, we decided it was time to to tear ourselves away. We considered going to Ometepee, but decided we didn't have the time, and still make it back to Guate for our flight to Quito. So even with 8 months, there is always the road not taken. Instead we headed back to Granada, and then to Lago Apoyo.

We stayed at the B&B run by the American couple we had met previously. Directly overlooking the large,volcanic lake, their place was beautiful. Our room opened to an inner courtyard, Spanish style.

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We spent the day relaxing on their dock, and swimming in the lake.

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In the evening we spent time talking to our friendly hosts, who gave us the use of their kitchen since restaurants were scarce. While drinking rum shots in the courtyard, we got the story of how and why they came to Nicaragua, and started their business. As promised, the slight elevation gain from Granada made the night air refreshing, as the breeze blewoff the lake. "Don't forget to check for scorpions," they said, as we turned in for the night. " What scorpions?" "Oh, they won't kill you, but you don't want to get bitten if you can help it. Makes you pretty sick for a few days, and you'll probably wish you were dead." " Where are they?" "Oh, they can be anywhere. Shake out your clothes, and look up in the corners of the room. They can drop down from the ceiling. We found one the other day." They showed us a dead one outside, squashed by George a few days earlier. So with some trepidation, we went back to our room, diligently shook out all our clothes, and looked in the bed and on the ceiling, carefully.

Posted by jonshapiro 17:33 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged photography Comments (2)

Talking Turkey in Granada

We spent the afternoon in Teguc, a fairly large city of modern office buildings and slums (mostly slums), not to our taste, and the following day we took off for Managua, Nicaragua. From there we caught a local minibus to Granada, an hour away. Granada, another colonial city, is on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in Central America. The city is larger than Antigua, but manageable, and we found our hostel, Oasis, without much trouble. It did indeed feel like an oasis with an inner courtyard, complete with hammocks, rather interesting murals on the walls, as well as a small swimming pool and restaurant.

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Oasis is an international place, and we could hear English, German, Dutch, French and Spanish being spoken within a few minutes of checking in. It was quite hot, and we dropped our packs in our room and plunged into the pool before going to explore. It was apparent that the city is in the midst of a relative boom. For years the overall Nicaraguan economy has been in the doldrums, and following the latest civil war and years of corruption, it remains the second poorest in the hemisphere, preceded only by Haiti. Here in Granada, many of the old, beautiful buildings are being renovated, mostly by Europeans or North Americans.

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The largest are being turned into hotels, at least in the center, and are fairly expensive by Central American standards. Others are being turned into restaurants or private villas. We passed a Century 21 office, with photos of houses for sale and captions in English. It was obvious that the great Norteamericano land and property grab is on here in earnest, despite the shaky economy and still unstable political situation.


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North Americans have been grabbing land in Nicaragua since the days of William Walker. Walker was a Tennessean journalist and adventurer, who saw an opportunity to take over Mexico and Central America, and create his own empire based on slave labor. In 1855, he had the perfect chance when the Liberal party in Nicaragua recruited him to fight against the Conservatives, in exchange for 20,000 acres of land. With 58 mercenaries, he stole one of Vanderbuilt's steamboats, and attacked Granada, the primary site of Conservative power. He executed and held captive many prominent people, and named himself commander of the Nicaraguan armed forces. Within a few years, he rigged the election to become president, legalized slavery, and even declared English to be the official language. The first foreign government to recognize him as the legitimate ruler of the country was of course, the United States, where Walker was considered a hero. There was even a Broadway musical, in 1856, which was based on his life. Eventually he challenged Vanderbilt's transportation business in Nicaragua, and Vanderbilt joined with the British, who were already active on the Caribbean coast, in financing a rebel force in Costa Rica. This combined force defeated Walker in 1857. He tried twice more to retake the country, but was captured by the British in Honduras, where he was turned over to local authorities and executed.

The US marines were involved in Nicaraguan politics on several different occasions, sometimes at the invitation of government officials in that country. With help from US Secretary of War, Stimson, a national guard was formed to help keep order. However a Liberal general, Augusto Sandino, opposed this arrangement and fought a guerrilla war for six years. Ironically, Sandino had become familiar with more radical union politics in Mexico,[i] while working for an American oil company. During this time, with full backing from the US government, General Anastasio Somoza became head of the national guard. Although Sandino had made peace, Somoza wanted power and had his soldiers trick and then assassinate him along with 300 of his men. Somoza then proceeded to amass a huge personal fortune and essentially run the Nicaraguan government, which was powerless to stop him. He was assassinated in 1956, but was smart enough to maintain ties to various US administrations, so that it was easy for his son, also known as Anastasio, and a graduate of West Point, to take over. He was easily as corrupt as his father, and continued his father's policies of close connections and support from the United States

In the early 60's another rebel movement arose which called itself the Sandinista Liberation Front , and came to be led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega. Initially very small, and without much popular support, it was given a large boost from the earthquake of 1972, which destroyed much of Managua. During this time Somoza wasted millions of dollars of international aide, much of which went to line his own pockets, and this set the business community against him.In 1979, the Sandinistas took over with little opposition, and Daniel Ortega became president. Gradually they tried to create a state run economy, and aligned themselves even more so with the Soviet block and Cuba. With encouragement from Fidel,they also became involved with the revolution in El Salvador.

In response, US President Reagan, aligned with the Argentine military to establish the Contras. Although badly mismanaged, the Contras gradually gained some popular support as the Sandinistas lost it, because of their disastrous economic policies. Despite the Boland Amendment,which expressly forbid it, the Reagan administration continued to supply and train the Contras. This eventually led to the Iran-Contra scandal and in part because of this, Oscar Arias the President of Costa Rica, was able to put together a peace agreement over Reagan's opposition. The Sandinstas were later defeated in a democratic election by Violetta Chamorro who, in an attempt to create a unity government, appointed Humberto Ortega as army chief of staff. Although this ended the war with the Contras, economic recovery was slow in coming and the Sadinistas remained a powerful force. In 1996 however, they were again defeated, this time by the center right PLC candidate, Aleman. An investigation later revealed that he had embezzled millions of dollars while mayor of Managua. Politics as usual in Nicaragua. In one of the strangest and most cynical political twists in a country full of them, Daniel Ortega, whose step daughter had accused him of sexual abuse, formed a pact with Aleman. Under this pact, he and Aleman, as well as all other outgoing presidents, were awarded lifetime seats in the Assembly, thus guaranteeing that each of them would have immunity from prosecution. Recently Daniel Ortega has, once again, become president.



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Despite these political machinations, Granada remains a delightful city. It has a beautiful central square, surrounded by mango trees, brightly painted colonial buildings and a church.

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Nearby there is the cobblestone and wide Plaza de la Independencia, with little traffic, a catedral, several outdoor cafes, and a cooperative art gallery and studio.

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From the Art Gallery
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On one of our morning walks we stopped into a small hotel, just in the process of opening. A young woman, Susan, was at the desk and we talked with her in Spanish about the hotel and what seemed to be happening in the town. She told us that a lot of North- Americans had moved up from Costa Rica in the last few years, where things had gotten expensive, and bought places for a song in southern Nicaragua. Prices were still cheaper than there, but going up fast. She explained that the person who was opening the hotel was an American woman who had been involved with the international relief movement in various countries, and had decided to settle here. Susan said that she had initially come down to Nicaragua as part of a graduate program in international studies, but that she liked Granada and planned to stay on for a while. “Oh which one?” we said in English. “The School for International Development in Brattleboro Vermont.” “Really,” we said in unison. “You didn't happen to know Arpita?” And of course, she knew her well. Arpita is one of our daughters best friends, who she met in Costa Rica a few years earlier while they were both in World Teach. Ah yes, the proverbial six degrees of separation. Susan said she was the manager of the new hotel, which had just opened that week. “In a few more years, this place will be the next Antigua,” and we could certainly see what she was talking about. “Do you have any plans for Thanksgiving?” which was coming up in a couple of days. “No.” "Well then you must come here. The owner is giving a big party , but its kind of a pot luck thing. Can you bring a dish of some kind?” We didn't have a kitchen we explained. “Just bring some fruit or something then, it doesn't really matter, but you'll get to meet the whole community.” “ We'll be there.”

Rooftops at Sunset
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Most of the next day we spent with an interesting German couple that we met at Oasis. She was about 40, with a Greek father and German mother, very chatty and boisterous. She told us she was going to spend six weeks volunteering as a physician in a hospital in Managua, and also mentioned there was an interesting volunteer project in Granada. Started and funded by a rich, expat Dutchman, who was still involved, it ran for about two hours a day for kids of all ages. They put on a kind of homespun talent show every night and fed them dinner. The purpose was to keep them out of street gangs, teach basic values about the importance of helping each other, and to make sure they had at least one decent meal a day. “We should go to one of the shows," she said. Just make sure you get there on time at 5 or, they won't let you in.” Her boyfriend, Stefan, who was younger and more serious, was going back to Germany after their week in Grenada. He was quieter and his heavily accented English was difficult for us to understand. When she heard that we were therapists, and that I specialized in work with couples, she pumped us for information about what we did and made it clear that she had a number of relationship issues . German men were often threatened by her, she said. Sometimes her Greek background made her feel different, and she often picked men who were not especially good for her. At times, talking to her felt like doing therapy. We later heard she was bitten by a scorpion in Managua and had a difficult time.

The project she told us about was in a run down part of town, close to the lake. The night we visited, there we were no outsiders, and several of the kids, more than 200 in all, made a fuss over us. " Why were we here" they wanted to know? Where were we from. What were we doing in Granada? The place was frenetic with kids banging on the tables and screaming to their friends. After about 15 minutes, the show began with singing and dancing. What was especially touching was that the older one's helped the little one's, and while the quality of was not the best, just like most talent shows, the energy was infectious, the kids wanted to be there, and were having a great time. After it was over, we helped to distribute the food and talked with the Dutchman who had come in just before the show started. He said he had started the program to give the kids a good meal, show them they could have a good time without drugs, and emphasize the importance of being kind and respectful to others. It was obviously a great success. Very simple and very effective.

Catedral with Lago Nicaragua in the Background
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The next day was Thanksgiving. We bought a couple of pineapples and some cashews and headed over to the hotel for the party. Susan greeted us, and introduced us to several other people including the hotel owner.
Terry was a fascinating woman about our age, who had been in war zones around the world, helping to bring in food and supplies. She had saved a bit of money, and bought the hotel a few years earlier so that she could “retire.” It had been an interesting project so far she said . She had more or less renovated the building from scratch and it took far longer than expected. We wanted to talk with her more, especially about her other career, but she was whisked off by another friend. A large contingent of the expat community was at the party. A lot of Norteamericanos certainly, but a few Dutch, French, English and Australians as well. There were also several locals, some hotel guests, and a few other travelers like us. It was an interesting assortment of people. There were a number of ex-peace corps types as well the other relief workers who knew Terry. There were also more typical retirees who saw Grenada as a nice place to spend their retirement years in a style that would be difficult for them to afford in the states. There were several investor types, including a couple of “contractors,” who saw dollar signs, and the potential to make good money as the town continued to prosper. There were hotel owners , restauranteurs and gift shop entrepreneurs. What they all seemed to have in common was a willingness to take some risks and a desire to live in a more relaxed way than they thought possible in the US. Everyone of course, knew everyone else in this small community, but they were very friendly toward us and the other mochilleros (backpackers).

The bar was open with wine and beer and a huge spread was put out on a buffet table, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Just like home. It had been prepared by the kitchen staff who apparently had never made a Thanksgiving dinner before, understandably enough, and needed instruction from the owner. We sat next to to an unlikely American couple in their mid 40's. They ran an auto-detailing business in the mid-west. About a year ago, Lily announced she was moving down here following a visit to her daughter who had spent some time volunteering in the hills outside of Granada. Lily had enough of the rat race, and her husband could come or not, that was up to him. After about 6 months he closed the business and followed her down, and a few months ago they bought a house on Lago de Apoyo and opened up a B and B. "You must come for visit while you're here. It's only about 40 minutes away. You even need a sweater at night," Lily said, as the sweat dripped down my neck. Now that did sound appealing.

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Posted by jonshapiro 15:03 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged food Comments (0)

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