Nicaragua: Mi amigo, Roberto–ROADTRIP !!!

world-tour-and-travel-destination-high-definitionTraveling gives one a privileged glimpse into the world we inhabit, but its rewards are found more in the people you meet along the way, sometimes in the most unexpected places, than in the tourist attractions you see.  It’s the people, the culture, and the food that fascinate me far more than seeing the world’s largest ball of twine (which actually exists in Cawker City, Kansas).  To be sure, there are some simply spectacular sights to be seen in the USA and around the world.  I hope to see them someday in my travels.  But it is the people, their lives and stories that draw me to travel.

Relatively speaking, I am a novice when it comes to world travel.  So far, I have been to 8 countries on three continents and am planning more.  In my travels I have managed to meet some of the nicest people.  Most recently while in Nicaragua, I met Robert one day at the front desk of the small hotel at which we were both staying. I found out he is completely fluent in English and Spanish, lives in Miami, was born in New Orleans, and his mother is Nicaraguan living in Miami.  He spent the early years of his youth growing up in Nicaragua before the devastating 1972 earthquake that hit the county demolishing buildings in Managua and killing more than 10,000 people.  He subsequently moved to the USA after the earthquake and attended Upper Merion High School outside Philadelphia before returning to Nicaragua to finish high school.  As it turned out, the hotel is the former site of his family home before the earthquake and his mother rebuilt the property into a lovely little boutique hotel.  It was a happy coincidence that I found the hotel and stayed there.  Robert was in Managua for a few days on business.  A kind and gracious man, Robert invited me along on some of his business excursions so that I could see and experience the “real” Nicaragua rather than only the side of it tourists see.  The experience has been priceless.  We visited places (small towns, beaches, mountains, Nicaraguan homes, indoor market places, farmers’ markets, etc.) that are likely on few tourist maps and probably have never been visited by National Geographic !!!

Nicaragua Roadtrip
Southwestern Nicaragua–Our Roadtrip Route in Blue

Geographically,  we made a fairly large circle through the countryside around Managua on the southwest side of Nicaragua–a total of more than 200 km (for we metrically challenged Americans that’s roughly 130 miles) to the Pacific coast and back to the shores of Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua.  Heading southeast out of Managua we drove to a little coastal town named Masachapa.  The town is on the Pacific coast and the beach is scattered with working fishing boats.  It’s a sleepy little town that probably is hopping on weekends but seemed like there was little going on during the weekdays in December.  From the deck of a small beach side restaurant, we saw beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and got a glimpse of working life in a small fishing village.

It appeared that the fishing fleet was already in for the day and fisherman were working on some of their boats.  One boat apparently needed some engine repairs on the approximately 80 hp outboard.  Now in the USA, we would trailer that boat near the repair shop and use a block and tackle or hydraulic lift to raise the heavy engine off the boat.  Here, however, about 6 guys simply unloosened the bolts and lifted it by hand off the boat onto a waiting hand truck to wheel it across the sandy beach.  The outboard had to weigh about 400 pounds but doing things by hand is the way things are done in Nicaragua.  Equipment is hard to come by.  These engines are heavy and to remove them by hand was an impressive sight !

UpP1010645 the beach, a group of children were playing something akin to soccer–at least they were kicking a soccer ball in some systematic organized fashion but had no goal nets or lines on the field and no apparent teams.  I’m not quite sure it was a competition but they sure looked like they were having fun. Although the picture to the left doesn’t contain a lot of the detail, in the upper left corner you’ll see children in the distance.  This is where the “soccer” was occurring.  The only boundary was the Pacific Ocean.

Nica HouseFrom Masachapa, we headed east northeast to San Rafael del Sur.  Near here was the home of one of Robert’s family friends and I was able to see a typical Nicaraguan rural home up close.  The family was very poor and the house is rustic at best.  No air conditioning, not sure if there was electric.  You can see a refrigerator sitting on the front porch in the picture but I have no idea if it was working or just being stored there.  Life is simple in Nicaragua and is slow and easy going.  Even though poor, most people seem fairly content.  One expatriate I met living in Nicaragua said, “Nicaraguans are poor but they don’t realize it because they seem to have everything they need.”  They have friends, family, church, and community.  A good local farmers’ market for fresh local fruits and vegetables and it all seems to go hand-in-hand.  Life “works” somehow here.

Maria Elena, Dale, and Robert (L to R) That’s a jar of fermenting lemons on the porch !

As we made our way up the mountains from the beach (about 300 meters above sea level), the outside temperature dropped noticeably.  We no longer needed the air conditioning in the car and the air was refreshing after the heat of Managua.  As we got closer to the town of Diriamba, I had the good fortune to meet some of Robert’s family.  We enjoyed great conversation over some 18 year old Nicaraguan rum (Flor de Cano) with interesting stories of Nicaragua past.  I was told that Maria Elena, a simply delightful lady, was Robert’s “grandmother’s daughter” (think about that one !).  Her husband, Dale, is from the USA but has lived all over the world and had some entertaining stories to tell.  They made me feel like a genuinely special visitor and shared a delicious lunch.  I had a wonderful time.  I look forward to seeing them again on my next trip to Nicaragua.  Maria Elena is an educational psychology professor at the local university and has invited me back to speak with her students and faculty members about education in the USA, Penn State, and all things education.  I can’t wait to go back.

Sign on the campus of Keiser University-Latin America Campus

After leaving their home, we headed to San Marcos, an interesting little college town tucked up in the mountains with the requisite housing, food/pizza joints, bars, and night spots.  San Marcos is home to Keiser University–Latin America Campus, formerly Ava Maria College of the Americas.  The university has a strong English language program and in certain sections of the campus all are required to speak only English.  Students I encountered on campus had excellent English skills and were pleasant and welcoming–although I’m sure they were wondering how a tall Gringo managed to get by security !

Laguna de Apoyo in the foreground; Lake Nicaragua in the distance and a handsome dude on the bench.

From San Marcos, we headed to the little town of Catarina, a tourist attraction tucked high up in the mountains with a spectacular view overlooking a volcanic crater lake (Laguna De Apoyo) that is approximately 600 feet deep.  The cone of the volcano is thought to have imploded some 23,000 years ago.  Water filling the void is the most crystal-clear out of all fresh water bodies in Nicaragua and possibly in Central America.  Since light only penetrates water to a depth of about 200 feet, the lagoon is home to some very interesting species of fish and naturalists are still discovering what lurks at the dark bottom of the lake.  Although various species of mojarras can be found elsewhere in the world (e.g., Caribbean), there are four specific species of mojarras that are thought to be found exclusively in this lagoon, the first of which was only discovered in 1976 (Arrow Mojarra, amphilophus zaliosus).  The other three species have yet to be named.

Cathedral in Spanish Colonial Granada

As we left Catarina and drove around the volcano to the north and east we were on our way to the town of Granada.  Granada is one of the major tourist attractions in Nicaragua best known for its early Spanish colonial architecture.  The old cathedral is beautifully restored and the downtown park is bustling with street vendors and tourists.  You can go for a carriage ride, eat local street food, find pretty good cigars, and drink beer.  Housing is a little more expensive in this area because of the increased tourism, but it is a beautiful little town nestled on the shores of Lake Nicaragua.  Tortillas being made by hand, fruits, cookies, and other delights were readily available on the street.  Granada is on my list of towns to visit for a few days on my return to Nicaragua.

P1010684All good things must come to an end and daylight was beginning to fade.  It was time for us to head back to Managua and we started out of Granada just before sunset.  But as a reminder that the circle of life must be complete, we passed a small church that was having a funeral service inside.  Outside stood a horse draped with a white crocheted coverlet waiting patiently while hitched to an ornate, black, glass-paned hearse for someone’s final ride home.  The end of our day was certainly more pleasant.

Muchas gracias, mi amigo Roberto…!!!

Nicaragua: The spirit of Christmas Present

P1010627In a country where more than 70% of the population identifies themselves as Catholic, Christmas is a serious celebration. Last Sunday and Monday were a celebration of The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (December 8).  Many businesses were closed both days and there were fireworks in the streets.  I was told these are “altars to Saint Mary” and saw that they were huge.  They reminded me of the floats at the New Years Day parades but on steriods.  The main boulevard leading down to Lake Managua was lined with them on both sides of the street and there were easily more than 100 or more of them.  They are hugely elaborate and, apparently, there is a great deal of competition to see who can make the best one.

P1010622Many of the ones I saw as I walked around downtown for almost 7 miles–according to my FitBit–in the section known as “old Managua” are all different with some including little fish ponds, child-sized footbridges to walk over, some had historic scenes of old Managua before the earthquake (1972) with Mary overlooking the city, and some were loaded with scenes for the children.   Some are government sponsored; others  have corporate sponsors.  The labor involved to build them is significant and beyond the means of most individuals.  These folks are serious about celebrating the true meaning of Christmas.


There was much singing in the streets and fireworks everywhere.  The celebration of Christmas broke out in full force in the early evening on Saturday and reached a crescendo on Monday night. As I walked the streets of my Managua neighborhood, I could hear fireworks going off everywhere (sounded like Beirut with a whiff of cordite in the air) and children singing (click the link–it’s only 35 seconds) in many public and private places.  Scenes like this were everywhere.  Could there possibly be a more beautiful sound than children singing?

Private homes had small altars setup outside their houses.  If they were lit, children and adults would stop in front of the house and sing traditional Spanish songs to Saint Mary and the homeowner would come out and give them treats and small gifts.  I was talking with three folks from California a couple of days later and they told me they went around and sang our traditional Christmas Carols and the homeowners loved it.  Got treats too !  Scenes like this were everywhere.

20141206_164138When I first heard the occasional fireworks going off before the celebration got into high gear, I was unsure if it was gunfire or if the revolution broke out again.  In the end, it was simply a joyous time for everyone and the fireworks added to the festivities (and litter on the street–see photo).  The children’s recording I’ve included above was inside a small outdoor church.  Every once in a while, an old gentlemen would quietly sneak out the gate and set off a LARGE string of fireworks on the sidewalk right outside.  The kids would keep on singing like nothing happened.  As you can see on the left, he liked doing that a lot !

My guess is the guy was probably pushing about 80 years old.  He would hold bottle rockets in one hand while he lit the fuse with the other until the rocket ignited and started to accelerate.  As it began to accelerate,  he would simply let it go.  Amazingly, near as I could see, he still had all 10 fingers after what I assume is decades of doing this !

Mall Show

The mall got into the act putting on a Christmas program for its patrons.  (Here’s a link to about a 1 minute video of the performance.)  Families were together everywhere and the joy of celebration in the air was palpable.  The local bookstore, Hispomer (the “H” is silent)–think Borders or Barnes and Noble–has a small gallery where they were displaying children’s artwork.  I’ve included a few shots from the gallery below.  Christmas is everywhere and Nicaraguans are celebrating.  I am told that they, like us in the USA, will shortly focus on the commercial part of Christmas but it is refreshing to see such a joyus, public display of the religious basis for the Christmas Season that is not hiding in the politically correct shadows.  Feliz Navidad, my friends.


The children’s art display at Hispomer in Managua, the largest bookstore in Nicaragua

Some shots of the artwork displayed on the wall in the above photo…

Crazy Snowman
Crazy Snowman–Sara Prestamante, 9 years old
Feliz Navidad
Feliz Navidad–Emely Lopez, 7 Years Old
Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree & Elf–Liz Chang, 7 Years Old
Manger Scene
Manger Scene–Eduardo Flores, 5 Years Old



Nicaragua: New digs….

thermometerOK, I have to admit, I finally can’t stand the heat.  Those of you up north will pity me I’m sure as I suffer through daytime temperatures of 87-89 degrees (feels more like the 90s with the humidity) and night time lows in the low 70s.  Crystal clear blue skies and not a drop of rain since I arrived. As mentioned in an earlier post, I was staying in a small private apartment with no air conditioning.  I knew this going in.  I was determined to get used to it.  However, and that’s a big “however,” I found myself plotting and scheming about ways to avoid the heat.  No such luck.  It’s hot.  There’s no getting around it.  There’s no escape.

Olympia and Fatima…hotel staff who cook breakfast and provide maid service. They are teaching me Spanish…!

I wimped out and found a small boutique hotel in a different section of Managua a few days ago that is within walking distance of the Metrocentro Mall, a fairly large, indoor, air conditioned mall and it’s like heaven on earth.  The mall is fairly upscale with well known and recognizable stores.  It’s got a Food Court and there’s even a Cinnabon !!!  I am still away from the tourist traps and hardly anyone speaks any English so my immersion plan is still in play.  There are also several restaurants within walking distance that are unbelievably reasonable with their prices and the food is outstanding.

Although I feel bad about leaving the small apartment as my host was simply a delightful and welcoming lady, in the end, it has been a very good move.  I am far more comfortable during the midday heat, have learned to always walk on the shady side of the street, and have a sanctuary from the heat at night.  The hotel is wonderfully maintained, the staff are extremely friendly and accommodating and I am thoroughly enjoying the new digs.  The move has also shown me a different side of Managua.  While folks in this neighborhood still are not wealthy and speak almost no English, it appears slightly more prosperous.  In the previous place, I did not go out at all after dark.  In this neighborhood, I feel perfectly safe after dark as long as I stay away from the back streets and alleys.

The hotel front desk staff speak some English and that has made getting information about the area more accessible.  The rest of the staff speak no English (thank heaven for Google Translate), are very professional and courteous, and seem to be having a good time helping me with their language.  What sweethearts !  Just a small example… I had some laundry drying in the bathroom on my portable laundry line that I had done in the sink with travel laundry soap sheets.  As an aside, I’ve used this “system” for a couple of years now while traveling and it works great.  While I was out, the maid came in to fix up the room and saw the wet laundry on the line.  She pulled it down and took it over to their dryer, folded it and it was all sitting on the corner of the bed when I came back.  The hotel only has about 15-20 rooms but is very well run, exceptionally clean, and they sell beer at the front desk. What could possibly be better !

Nicaragua: Optimism in a Land of Poverty

Street-side booths selling everything under the sun

I’m walking a lot, seeing some of the same faces each day and they are beginning to warm up to me.  The Nicos on the street in this area are not as friendly as the Ticos Heide and I encountered in Costa Rica when it comes to Gringos…seemingly suspicious…but I think it is largely due to the fact that I’m staying in a poor neighborhood.  I am sure they can’t help but wonder what a tall (exceptionally good looking), apparently well-fed (only guessing they notice that!) Gringo is doing walking around their neighborhood.  Familiarity in the same barrio, however, seems to be tempering the suspicion somewhat. I am at least starting to get smiles and “Buenos dias” from several of the security guards who seem to be everywhere.

Poor, but look at the smile.

Many of these folks are poor by any standard.  According to some of the statistics I’ve seen online and what I’ve been told by locals, the average Nicaraguan household income is about $200-300 per month.  These folks are incredibly hard working people who use mostly hand tools for jobs that would have us at the Home Depot rental counter in a heartbeat (…more about that in another post).  Poverty is visible everywhere…the infrastructure (electric, garbage collection, etc.), people scrabbling out a living as street vendors for everything imaginable, farmers selling their produce, etc.  And yet, I have only been approached by a single person looking for a handout in all my walks.  They may be poor but, in my limited experience, they are proud.

P1010610 Roasting ears of corn over charcoal in an old car wheel for a grill

My not being able to speak the language is a humbling experience.  I feel like a frustrated infant when it comes to being able to communicate with the local folks who undoubtedly have such rich stories to tell.  I  have a much deeper sense of empathy for those who come to the USA without knowing the language.   Having the advantage of being highly educated and with financial resources, I am confident that I can figure it out and one way or another get along.  To me, it’s an adventure that I savor.  Those less educated poor immigrants who come to the USA without knowing our language must be absolutely terrified.  Yet the promise of a better life for them and their families is irresistible.  As I walk these streets, I often ponder what I would be willing to do to provide for my family if I were in the same boat.

I am finding the Nicaraguan people are delightful.  In spite of my initial reception in the neighborhood, they are warm and friendly and only too eager to help the Gringo understand their language. Also, in spite of the poverty, the people I have met have amazing resiliency and hope.  Perhaps its the time of the season (Christmas is approaching) but everywhere you go there are celebrations with friends and family. Family is very important here and there seems to be a closeness that is visible.  In a land of abject poverty, optimism abounds.

Although I don’t think it’s right for our government to ignore the fact that people are entering our country illegally and I believe our immigration laws must be reformed and enforced, I am becoming far more sympathetic to the plight of the poor who speak no English.  There is certainly a criminal element coming across our borders but overwhelmingly those who come across are poor, hard working people trying to support their families.    Some of my friends delight in how we should “pack ’em up and send ’em all home.”  Live among the poor in a foreign land for awhile.  It’s not that simple.

Some additional photos of but one side of Nicaragua…

A street lined with sidewalk vendors
Sidewalk vendor in front of university. Hanging on the wire are ID card lanyards !


Street vendor selling soda. You don’t get the bottle. They pour it into a plastic bag, put a small chunk of ice in the bag and give you a straw.
Walking the sidewalks can be dangerous
Another street vendor..
Horse carts in traffic on one of the busiest streets in Managua. I have seen these routinely.

Gracias por compartir mi viaje conmigo. Hay más por venir.





Musings from Nicaragua…

NicaraguaOff again to foreign lands…this time Managua, Nicaragua.  I am spending 15 days here to check out another country, it’s people and culture, and in yet another futile attempt to learn Spanish.

I started my journey on Monday and have been staying in a small apartment attached to a private home  The family living in the home is simply delightful but speak no English; I speak no practical amount of Spanish.  We communicate through Google Translate on the computer!  I am also, intentionally, staying in a section of Managua that is not typically frequented by tourists so I would not be around Nicaraguans that wanted to practice their English on me.  My thinking was that by being forced to use the language and being immersed in it daily, I would acquire some fluency more quickly.  So, prior to the trip, I went on a hunt to find a nice room in a “local” neighborhood.  I wanted a true Nicaraguan experience rather than a touristy one.

Just a few flaws in that thinking…

First, I found a very nice apartment online that was very reasonably priced.  In fact it was a bargain, a steal, an irresistible chance to live among the locals just as they do and immerse myself.  Upon arrival, the rooms were exactly as pictured in the ad. Very nice, clean, well decorated, the host was waiting for me and greeted me as I got out of the taxi from the airport.  However, my two room plus bath apartment has no air conditioning and is hotter than a fresh batch of snickerdoodles.  Now to be fair, I knew going in that there was no air conditioning and was assured there was a big fan there for my use.  The fan was there as promised and it was a good size, BUT…it’s a thousand freakin’ degrees in here. A trip to the sun would be more comfortable.  The fan does nothing more than blow the solar flares around the room. I feel like I’m about to spontaneously combust at any given moment.

Second, I am staying in a rather poor section of Managua.  I feel safe but it is clear that the people here are not prosperous and, as a result, apparently do not eat out much.  Now I’ve walked the neighborhood in every direction (about 5 miles a day) and have yet to find a real sit-down restaurant.  I suspect that the folks are so poor in this area that eating out is simply not an option for them.  There are numerous street vendors hawking all manner of goods and foods but I doubt Anthony Bourdain would eat from any of those carts.  I have discovered that the local grocery store has a rather large food counter that serves meals cafeteria style with a dozen tables in the store.  It is surprisingly well attended in the morning.  Picture breakfast at the grocery store. Scrambled eggs with ham, a fried egg, sausage, and coffee. $1.94. Trying to pay in Spanish…priceless.

Third, using the local currency where no one speaks English is a challenge.  Not only must you do the conversion to dollars in your head so you know if you are getting ripped off, but you also need to understand the numbers they are saying to you in Spanish with no chance in hell of an English translation.  I have no “ear” for Spanish yet as all spoken numbers seem like one long syllable that matches none of the words I actually know.  Now honestly I can count to 10 quite easily and with much effort can make it almost to 100 but a first grader can probably count higher in Spanish than I can.  Combine that tidbit with the Spanish tendency to speak faster than a speeding bullet and it adds up to…well, a very confused Gringo.

I have very shrewdly developed a foolproof system.  I simply show the cashier a wad of cordobas (the local currency) and let her pick out how much she wants !!!  It works every time and I get a smile from the cutest cashiers.

I embarked on this journey for an adventure, and for better or worse, I’m going to have one.  If I wanted to stay at a Hilton or Marriott, I could have done so anywhere back in the USA.  The whole point of staying at a place like this is to be away from the tourist traps.  I want to see the culture first hand by living among the locals.  Immersion in Spanish is the goal and other than a street hustler that his assistance “to help you, God Bless America!”, I’ve spoken no English to anyone here (Spanish is not improving much as my latest strategy is to simply not say anything !!!).

Already I sense a slightly better tolerance for the heat….at least better coping strategies.  I was quite comfortable sleeping last night and do very little in the heat of the afternoon.  Siestas seem to have a real purpose here.  I have walked A LOT during the early morning and late afternoon when it’s cooler exploring the neighborhood and the streets around where I’m staying.

Hasta luego !!!  I’ll keep you posted.