Saturday, January 25, 2014

Panama Boarder Crossing ....Gateway to Hell?

Go to Panama. It will be fun! Not the boarder crossing!
It was 8:00 PM and we were standing in line to enter Panama. The last 2 days of travel on buses had drained me. I was delirious. Everything was funny now. Chantal and I had traveled from Managua to San Jose, Costa Rica (10 hours by bus), slept at the Tica Bus station hotel and then boarded another bus to David, Panama. As we were in line to board the bus, I was told I needed to buy a return airplane ticket to the USA before I could board. What?!? I had arranged a bus ticket to cover the issue but they said the USA government required I had a flight home. I looked at my watch. The bus was leaving in 28 minutes. Ugh! I was not happy but realized I needed to buy a refundable airline ticket. I went online and bought it with plans to cancel the next day. I boarded the bus to Panama and was ready for the boarder crossing. Everyone we met had stories about the boarder crossing. Several people were on boarder runs and had been using the same "airline ticket" they had been doctoring for months. Wish I had known about that, I would have made a fake one too! They also told us we needed to show USD $500 cash to enter. Ugh. I hate stupid rules like these. It makes me never want to come back to a country that is not easy to travel. As I stood in the long line waiting, I was even more certain I did not want to do this again. We were the third bus in line. Everyone had to get off and line up at the counter. There was a long line of people in front of us. A gentleman walked up and handed us the forms to fill out in line. Everyone was trying to balance the form on a bag and answer the questions. We had to account for all the money we had in every currency. Locals were standing around watching as tourists pulled out money and counted it. Yeah, I felt safe! Then  someone walked up and said we had to pay an entry tax ($1) and placed a stamp in our passport. We stood in line for 2 hours. Finally, I reached the window. I handed the gentleman my passport. He asked me to show him $500. I pulled it out of my money belt and handed it to him. He motioned for me to fan it out. Then said ok. Then he asked for my airline ticket. I gave it to him. He saw it was out of San Jose, Costa Rica and asked for a bus ticket from Panama to Costa Rica. Seriously! I pulled that out. This was ridiculous! Next he asked where I worked, my degree, when I was going back to the USA and where I was traveling. When he opened up my passport he noticed all the stamps and asked when I had left the USA. Ugh! I had a bank statement prepared to show him if needed.  I was contemplating if I would have to give him some money to stamp my passport. Luckily, he had enough information and stamped my passport.
You would think this was sufficient to get us through the boarder. Nope! Now we had to wait for everyone on the bus to get stamped and then they would open the bus for us to remove our luggage for search. I decided to find a bathroom. Unfortunately, they were closed for the day and we would have to wait. Nope. I needed to go. I was irritated at this point. I asked the bus driver if I could use the one of the bus. After promising I was only going to urinate, he let me. Then I returned to the curb to sit and wait. Chantal and I started making up Panama tourism ads. We decided they should start one that is " puts the FU in FUN!" I have been to 22 countries and Panama was the most difficult and costly to enter. Why? Who knows. Bureaucracy gone bad. It is not a country made for backpackers. We finally got the ok to get our bags and enter a small room. Everyone rushed to get a place on the tables. I sat on my backpack on the floor waiting. I looked around. All the backpackers were chilling on the floor. Everyone at the tables was forced to open and unpack their bags for the customs agents. When there was space, I moved up and lifted my bag. The guy said ok. I never even opened it. Huh?!?  Just another checkbox requirement with no real purpose. I was happy to finally be back on the bus. It was late and we still had an hour to David and 45 minutes to our hotel in Boquete.
When the bus pulled up to the stop in David, Chantal and I were happy to see our guesthouse waiting for us. We jumped in the truck and were happy when we arrived at Casa Pedro. I was ready to sleep off 2 days of long bus rides and boarder crossings. I knew I would feel better when I got some rest. Panama had better be good, the boarder crossing had already put it in a bad light.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua


Welcome to Little Corn Island
"Oh my God! I am going to die!" I uttered those words as the boat bounced from large wave to the next. We hit a wave and gallons of water rushed over the sides and drenched me. I spit out a mouthful of sea water as I rubbed my eyes. They were burning from the salt water. The girls in the rows behind me screamed and I knew another large wave would crash over me in seconds. I was going to drown at sea! This is how my life was going to end!! We were a third of the way on the panga (speedboat  that holds 40 people) ride from Great Corn Island to Little Corn Island. I had left the Hostal De La Casa de Los Abouelos before sunrise. Fabby's father gave Chantal and me a ride to the La Costena airport. We boarded an hour flight to Great Corn Island on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua. As the plane landed on the island, we saw children looking over fences at the plane and an armed gunman (military I assured myself) watching as the plane taxied to the airport. We walked down the steps to the tarmac and past the drug dog while we waited for our luggage. Our checked bags were also sniffed for drugs. As we waited, 2 horses snuck onto the runway and were happily galloping on the black Tarmac. A local gentleman explained this is a frequent sight and the planes typically do a fly over to make certain there are no lose cows or horses roaming free. Ha ha! Chantal and I grabbed our bags and found a taxi driver to take us to the dock. He told us we had plenty of time and asked if we wanted a breakfast first. Sure, why not. We had 2 hours before the boat left for the island. We sat at a restaurant looking out at the calm blue sea and waiting for our breakfast. We never expected it to take 1 hour and 10 minutes to get scrambled eggs! It was time to really slow it down. Island time. We got our food and the taxi driver waved to us. We had 5 minutes to eat. We hurriedly ate our food and got back in the taxi.  We arrived at the port as the boat was loading. We asked about tickets and were told to buy them on the boat. We got in line for the boat and were asked if we had tickets. Huh?!? Someone was messing with us. We were sent back to buy tickets and told we would be on the next boat. As we waited on the dock, a guy told us to get in the first boat. I was confused and just did as I was told. He had a row scoot together and had me squeeze into the side. We were squished into the boat like sardines. After 20 minutes, we finally left. It seems they have the 2 boats go at the same time for safety. The 30 minute ride was rocky and I really did believe we were going to drown at sea. It was the wettest roller coaster ride I had ever been on. On the right side of the boat was a plastic tarp that people were trying to hold over their heads. Half the people were crouched under it and the rest of us had given up and were getting drenched by the large, rough waves. I was grateful when I could see shore. Finally! As we exited the boat, I found the boy from Carlito's Place who was sent to take us to our casitas on the east side of the island. We grabbed our backpacks and followed behind his full wheelbarrow. There are no cars on the island. The only transportation is walking.

Roads on Little Corn Island

It is peaceful and I was happy to be back on the water. As we walked the dirt path, we passed signs for other hotels and restaurants. I was taking notes of who had food and Internet.

Road signs

We arrived at Carlito's and had to do a little negotiation. I had reserved 2 casitas. One was fine but the second was in the back of the propoerty. I asked to see it. It was awful. A little treehouse by the swamp. There was no way I was staying in it next to what I assumed was a snake filled swamp, not even for $15! Chantal did not want it either. We finally decided to take a double for $30. We dropped our belongings and headed to the beach. The water was refreshing! We lounged on the beach and in the hammocks giggling about how lucky we were to be relaxing in paradise for a week while friends and family were freezing in the "polar vortex!"

We spent a week swimming, reading, writing and relaxing on the beaches. We walked the island trails each day. It is a small island but fun to explore. I found my favorite house on the beach, Casa Flip Flop. I was impressed with the flip flop Christmas tree out front.

Grace's Cool Spot had my favorite Christmas tree.

Merry Christmas in Corn Island

But most of our time was spent walking to different beaches and relaxing in the sand.
This was the high tourist season  but we did not see many tourists. The only time we saw a lot of tourists was when you went to a café or restaurant that had Internet. In our time there we liked the food and internet speed at Café Desirae and Casa Iguana. We became regulars and got to know the other tourists that frequented these spots.
As we explored the island, we came upon the windmill used for power at the Peace and Love Farm.
Later, we explored the southern end of the island and wandered through flower gardens and coconut groves. We were reminded not to take anything.
As we walked through the jungle, we started to wonder if we would find a beach. We looked out through the jungle and saw a couple beaches. We hiked down the side of the small cliff to a beach. Then we saw rocks. We crawled over the rocks and around the point to the second also had rocks but the view was great!  We were often the only people on the beaches.
We celebrated that evening with fresh coconuts and huge salads at Café Desirae. Mmmm!
I woke up early in the mornings to enjoy the quiet on the beach. I was usually joined by one of the local dogs. I named this guy Chelle but my favorite island dog was Bushman. He had a colar that read I am Bushman. Each time you said his name he would bark at me. He walked with me several mornings.
At the end of the week, I was ready to make the journey back to the mainland and south to Panama. I had decided to skip Costa Rica because it was much more expensive than Nicaragua and I needed to watch my budget.  I packed my bags and said goodbye to the beautiful Little Corn Island.
A quick and less eventful boat ride back to Great Corn Island and then to the airport.  I was flying back to Managua for one night. Then taking a bus to San Jose, spending a night there and on to Boquete, Panama. 


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Day Tripping from Granada

What a New Year's celebration! We were all still laughing and amazed at the craziness from the previous night. Christy, Steve and I sat at breakfast reminiscing and laughing. Granada definitely knows how to welcome the New Year! As we were walking the Parque Centro, we stumbled upon one last soul that had decided to make the sidewalk his bed for the night. He looked like he needed a little more rest.
After breakfast, we decided to drive an hour to Laguna de Apoyo, a large volcanic crater that was now a lake. Our hotel recommended a hotel that where we could pay $15 and spend the day using their beach facilities.
It was the perfect way to relax after New Year's celebrations. We were all moving a little slower and ready to relax on the beach. The water was refreshing. I lounged on the shore reading while the McCrosky's took the catamaran out for a ride around the lake.
After a small rain storm and lunch, we each curled up for reading and naps in hammocks overlooking the lake.
I made the mistake of sleeping with my backpack as a pillow and messed up my back. I noticed a stiffness as we walked back to the car but the next morning I was a mess. I had to get a deep tissue massage and some pharmaceutical products to help ease the pain. No climbing a volcano for me! I sent Christy and Steve to Mombocho while I waited for the masseuse to arrive. Luckily, the hotel had recommended a guy that would arrive in an hour. I needed some major work. He arrived and walked into my room.  Jose opened his bed and put a sheet on it. He told me to remove my clothes. I waited for him to leave the room but he was doing his stretches and preparing to work over my muscles. I decided to go ahead and remove my clothes. I quickly laid down on the table and waited for a towel or blanket. None. It was naked massage time!  Fine. I hurt so bad I did not care. Jose was a professional...or so I hoped. He asked how I hurt myself and I told him I fell asleep in a hammock. He made a tsk, tsk, tsk sound and instructed that I never do that again. Then he went to task massaging my bum, back and legs. After a while, I thought he told me to turn over. He stopped me half way and twisted and cracked my back. Ahhh! It released pressure. I was feeling better. Then he told me to get up. He removed the sheet from the bed and placed it on the floor. He told me to lay down and pull my knees to my chest. I was naked and this was definitely awkward. What the hell was he going to do to me?!?! He rolled up a towel and placed it under my back. Then he put his weight onto my legs. Craaaackkkkkk! More relief! He rocked me towards him and rolled the towel higher under my back and rocked me back. This was odd but my spine cracked. The pain in my hip and leg went away. After a few more times he had me back on the table and started massaging a cream into my sore muscles. It heated up and felt good. Before he left, he saw a Icy Hot patch on the table and put it on my bum/lower back. Then he told me to take the pills I had bought, drink lots of water and sleep the day away. I felt 60% better when he left. That was a great 90 minute massage for $33!! I slept the day and night away.
I woke in the morning feeling much better. I was hungry and needed to find the McCrosky's. My bag was packed. This was my last day with them. I was going back to my backpacker lifestyle and flying to the Corn Islands in the morning. The McCrosky's were flying back to the states. :( I found Christy and Steve at breakfast. They had a great day at the volcano and had done some rough hiking...I never would have made it! We decided to go to stop at Masaya before returning to Managua.
The Masaya market was the nicest one I had visited in Nicaragua. We strolled shopping and bartering for artwork items and then rewarded ourselves with smoothies. Afterwards, we drove a short distance to the Masaya Volcano. We stopped at the information center and learned the history of the volcano (including the sacrifices of women and children).
Then we were prepared for the drive to the ridge. This was an active volcano with gases and lava!! We read that we were only allowed 5 minutes at the top. As we arrived at the top, we backed into a spot so we could leave ASAP if the volcano erupted. I hoped that would not happen but, you never know!

The gases were thick and we could not see any lava. Bummer! We looked around and hiked up a small path. After a few photos we left as rain started to fall. We drove to Managua. Christy and Steve did not have a reservation so we tried to find an area with hotels listed in the travel book. We saw a Crown Plaza and Steve went in to work out a price on a hotel room. They decided to stay the night. I was getting a taxi across town to my hostel. We said our goodbyes. It was fantastic having the McCrosky's travel with me. I have missed them so much! I was sad to say goodbye but I know I am on the downside of this trip. I will have to start thinking about going back to the "real world." I will see them back in the states.
I arrived back at the Hostel De La Casa de Los Abuelos and waited for my friend Chantal to arrive. I repacked my backpack and decided to leave a few items here in Managua that I would not need on the islands. I was ready for the next adventure, 7 days relaxing on Little Corn Island in the Caribbean.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Happy New Year's - Granada, Nicaragua

It was New Year's Eve. We had heard stories that Granada was crazy on New Year's Eve. We had asked around and found out the stuffed men we saw sitting on the sides of the roads and on the porches of homes were the old year (2013) which would be burned at midnight.

Old Man 2013

After my massage, I was drinking a cup of water waiting for Christy to get finished with her massage. I saw 2 men from the spa walk in with 8 wooden structures that looked like bulls. I asked about them, thinking it was something for children. Wow! Was I wrong!! They had bought them in the market and would light them on fire and run through the streets with them. I asked how you keep from starting on fire and he laughed and said "There are only 2 rules. 1. Run really fast! 2. Wear a hat." Ok. Sounded like something I wanted to watch. I asked where all if this would happen and he pointed to the street in front of Pure Spa. Christy walked out at this time and I explained what I had been told. We laughed that the calming zen spa was going to be running with fire tonight. Little  did we know what was waiting for us! 

Christy, Steve and I decided to do a progressive dinner and drinks. We would eat and drink our way around town. We decided to order one appetizer to share and then move on to the next place. We ate a variety of foods but decided the ceviche at Chakana Peruvian restaurant was the best. Once Christy and I got an order without cilantro (devil's spice) we devoured it!  Nom nom nom! 

Afterwards, as we were sitting on the pedestrian street enjoying drinks, when a parade of costumed people walked by with Old Man 2013. We finished our drinks and decided to follow the group. We did not want to miss the festivities! We walked back past a cathedral and noticed fireworks were set off from the front steps while mass was being delivered. Wow! I was shocked but we were later told that the priest gives money for fireworks to the parishioners. Oh well! Fireworks during mass...why not?!?! It was Nicaragua, anything goes.  

As we turned onto Calle Corrall, the locals were sitting on their doorsteps and on the sidewalks. Everyone was talking and excited. They were friendly and chatted with us, asking where we were from. It seems everyone has lived in the USA or had a friend or relative in the USA. The firemen and ambulance arrived and parked on the street. It was getting closer to midnight.
Policemen were walking through the crowds. At 11:30PM, a pole was put into the middle of the street and Old Man 2013 was tied to it. Everyone was taking photos with the stuffed man. As midnight approached, sparklers were placed at the feet of Old Man 2013. Steve's camera died. We were only 4 blocks from the hotel. It was 11:45PM.  This was going to be a night for photos. I ran to get my camera. I walked back through what felt like a war zone! Firecracker were flying through the air and popping on the street. Sirens were blaring and horns were honking. The party began at 11:55PM. Happy New Year! Children started throwing fireworks into the street. One flew towards me. I jumped back and got hit by a few sparks. Ouch! I arrived at the corner as the Old Man was set on fire! Fireworks flew into the sky.

Old Man 2013 burning (Christy and Steve on the curb on the right.)
A young boy was celebrating on his fathers shoulders. 

I looked down the street and could see the McCrosky's running my direction. I was happy when they reached me. Christy was laughing saying this was crazy, fun and fantastic! A local had told them they better move. Fireworks were flying. The Local looked at Christy and put his index and middle finger up in the #2 sign and pointed from her eyes to his and said "Tu ojos!" Then something that made her realize they were in danger and needed to run. Whew! Their eyes were fine and neither of them was burned or scorched. 
We all laughed as we said this is the craziest and most fun New Year's .....EVER! Wow! Then the real fun started!! Children were setting off fireworks. Then the craziness began. The paper bulls were brought out. A guy held it above his head and another man lit it on fire.
It had fireworks (sparklers) attached and went up in a fiery blaze. He ran towards the crowd! We looked at each other...#%€*!!! What was this? We laughed. It was a crazy mix of danger and fun. It was a fireball as he ran down the street towards the crowds. Bottle rockets exploded overhead. There was screaming, laughter and cheers from the bystanders. Here is a short clip. (2014 New Year's Fire Running)
All of my photos are a blaze of a fireball running by crowds of people. This scene was replayed for almost an hour. Then the firecrackers and dancing in the streets started. Attached is a short clip of the celebration. Video New Year's Celebration

I looked at Steve and Christy and said "Wow! That sobered me up fast!" They laughed and agreed. It was like a train wreck, you could not stop watching. Was it safe? No. Was it fun? Absolutely! I loved it! At 2:00AM, we walked back to our rooms laughing about the night. If this is what 2014 will be like, I can't wait for a year of facing fears head on, laughter, fun and pure joy. Happy New Year's! 

Granada, Nicaragua

Buenas dias de Granada!
Granada. One mention of the town and Nicaraguans smile and tell you of the beauty of the colonial town. The guidebook described it as "photographic elegance with postcard scenes around every corner". My expectations were high. I was not disappointed. I always appreciate bright colors, horse drawn carts and cobblestone streets.

Granada is a beautiful colonial city with a large expat population. But with all of this came much higher prices. Ouch! Gone were the cheap days of Leon! We walked to the Parque Centro with locals selling food, souvenoirs and watching the tourists.
Carriages were lined down the street waiting to take tourists on tours of the city for $28.
Granada is an easy city to walk or ride bikes. Biking seemed to be the easiest way for locals to get around the city. It was common to see men peddling their wives, girlfriends, friends or children around town.
I was spending the days before and after New Years in Granada. We walked the city exploring the city, peaking into the courtyards of hotels and eating.

Granada has many old colonial churches and beautiful homes with courtyard swimming pools. I loved the bright colors of the homes and restaurants and spent time walking and photographing the area.
The market was full of hustle and bustle with everything from fruits to shoes, clothing and electronics.
As I walked the market men reached out to grab my arm and pull me back. Then asked for money. I decided I was not interested in spending too much time here. I moved on.

I have a soft spot for the animals. We forget that many cultures do not spay and neuter their animals. The large expat community has been successful in getting many of the animals veterinary care and spaying/neutering the dogs and cats. I am a sucker for the dogs and find myself photographing them everywhere I visit. One morning on my walk, I came across this dog and his owners.
They greeted me and I went over to say hello. They laughed when I introduced myself as Michelle. They looked at one another and asked "Your name is Chelle? Same as dog? " I realized they named their white dog Chelle which means white person. They thought it was funny that my parents named me white person. I laughed and went along with the joke. Why not? I laughed and agreed that I was like their dog.
I continued my journey to another church. Music was playing inside and I entered along the side door. A man came over to me and took me to a seat. I sat looking at the artwork and ceiling of the church. Oblivious to the service. Eventually, I looked up and realized there was a casket in the aisle. No! Not again! I liked around and noticed several people were looking at the tourist with a camera around my neck sitting in a pew. I am an idiot! I got up and left. Why do I do these things?!?!? As I exited the front of the church I saw the hearse. How did I miss that? 
I walked up to it and looked at it. Wow! This was a beautifully carved carriage. It made a statement. The owner walked over and we chatted in my limited Spanish. He told me it had been in his family for 4 generations. I told him it was beautiful.

I returned to the hotel and met up with the McCrosky's for our planned activity, kayaking Las Isletas. Hundreds of small islands had formed in Lake Nicaragua after the eruption of Mombacho Volcano and earthquakes that followed. We took a short cab ride to the entrance where we hired Luis, a local guide, to take us around the Isletas. The area was stunning and serene. We paddled around the islands as Luis pointed out the flora and fauna of the area. I was impressed with the cleanliness of the water. No trash. We paddled for an hour and he stopped at a school where we could swim in the water. We parked our kayaks and jumped into the water. It felt fantastic! Steve, Christy and I floated. Relaxing in the water and watching the locals passing in boats. Ahhhh! This is living! We returned to our kayaks and paddled back to the kayak center. We thanked Luis and he walked us to a local restaurant where we feasted on fresh fish. Mmmm! 

We returned to town and Christy and I had massage appointments at Pure. It had been a long time since I had a massage. I relaxed as my muscles were massaged and all the tension and soreness from traveling left my body. I was ready to enjoy the New Year's Eve celebration in Granada! 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Popoyo, Nicaragua

Popoyo Beach, Nicaragua
Where are they? It was December 27th and I was sitting in the Managua airport on my backpack looking for the McCrosky's. I was excited to see my friends. I waited patiently but ready to go have fun. When I saw them I waved excitedly. Yes! The McCrosky fun was beginning. Steve and Christy had talked me into meeting them (it wasn't hard) in Nicaragua, a country that was never in my original plan. But plans are meant to be broken! We met up and went to get a rental car. Steve had done all of the planning and I let him. I was ready to let someone else figure out everything for a week. This was my break from travel and a vacation. 

The McCrosky's have arrived! Let the fun begin!
As we left Managua, we headed south towards Masaya where we stopped for lunch. We found a small restaurant and celebrated the beginning of our adventures with beer and Nica food. Then it was time to get back on the road to Popoyo, a surf beach along the Pacific Ocean. We laughed as we started heading south on the small roads past nurseries, ranches and volcanoes. We talked and caught up on life. Steve made a white flag rule that Christy and I were not allowed to talk about work friends when he was around. Christy and I agreed. We had so much to catch up! 

I have not been responsible for driving since I left Bali and my scooter. It was strange to be following a map and figuring out driving directions. Luckily, Nicaragua doesn't have many roads and all you really need to do is roll down the window and ask a local for directions. Most often, people would tell you to drive a few blocks turn right and drive further...then stop and ask for directions. Ha ha! Nicaragua doesn't have proper street addresses. All addresses are based on a monument, sight or geography. For example, 1.5 blocks east of the supermarket and 2 blocks towards the river. Yes! That was the address of a hotel. It is fine if you know the town but difficult for travelers. You learn quickly to ask directions frequently. We were lucky because Steve's Spanish was more advanced then the Sesame Street level that Christy and I spoke. We stopped several times for directions. We made it to the back roads towards Popoyo. We laughed as we got into the countryside and saw firework stands, stuffed old men, and farm animals running free along and across the roads. The potholes were huge and we scraped the bottom of the car repeatedly. As the sun was setting over the Pacific we arrived at the hotel, Magnific Rock. The view was stunning. 
We enjoyed drinks and diner as we sat looking at the stars sparkling on the ocean. We laughed as we watched the "circus" performance by the workers. We were already nicknaming everyone at the lodge. If they didn't want a nickname they should have kept their body covered a little more! We were tired and ready for a few fun and relaxing days on the beach.

Magnific Rock Hotel- amazing views

I awoke to the sound of the ocean. It calms me. I slept well. The sun was shining and I decided to get some photos in the early morning.  
The beach is beautiful. Stretches of soft sandy beaches with green trees on the other side. No other hotels in sight. I love early morning walks. I feel better when I get up and moving first thing in the morning. I walked along enjoying the sights, sounds and smell of fresh ocean air.

Surfer Steve off to catch some waves

Steve passed me on his morning run and said he was going surfing. I returned and Christy was out for a morning walk also. We all met up for breakfast and some paddle boarding. This was my first time. I followed Christy into the water. I got up onto my knees and paddled a few times. Then a wave through me off balance and I tumbled into the water.. I pulled myself back up and tried again and again. As soon as I got onto my knees, the wind started pushing me out towards sea. I noticed Christy was having a hard time standing up also. The wind kept pushing us further out. We were struggling against the wind and waves. Steve was waving for us to come back to shore. We kept going further out. The whitecaps were getting closer. Finally, Christy and I paddled back to shore. It was a workout. The tide and the wind was working against us. I was dead when I got back to shore. Steve was scared we had been too far out and would get carried to sea. What?!?! I was too stupid about the ocean and did not realize I was in that much danger. Oops! I was happy to be safe and sound back on land. I liked paddle boarding and want to try it again when the wind and waves aren't so strong. Steve took a paddle board and showed us how it is done. Showoff! We watched in amazement as he paddled around for an hour. From one side of the bay back across to the other side. He made it look really easy.
Our days were spent enjoying the beautiful beach. We swam, walked, watched Steve surf and relaxed. This was a special paradise. One afternoon, we decided to drive to Popoyo village to buy beer and a few snacks. Afterwards we went looking for a beach restaurant for sunset. We could not find a road to the restaurant so we parked the car and walked the beach restaurant. It seemed like 5 minutes. We found what we thought was a family restaurant and sat down. Wait? Is it a restaurant or a family gathering? Christy and I sent Steve to ask since his Spanish was the best. Whew! It was a family restaurant and he returned with menus. We ordered and enjoyed sunset and beers by the ocean.

After dinner we walked to the beach and realized we did not have a torch. The only light we had was the flash on Christy's camera. We started walking down the dark beach. There was no moon. Christy would take a photo while Steve and I tried to see if the surroundings looked like the area we had left our car. We stumbled over rocks and continued walking. I don't know how we found the path to our car. It was dumb luck. I was more surprised we didn't break an ankle! We got back to the car and laughed about our adventure. Between paddle boarding and night hikes on the beach, I thought the McCrosky's were trying to kill me! Steve was still laughing about the adventure as we were driving the roads back to the hotel. He turned off the headlights on the car and said "Look how dark it is out here. It is pitch black!" Christy yelled "Oh my god Steven! You are going to hit a pig! The pigs come out at night!" What?!?! Ha ha! In reality the pigs are always running around the streets but we did not want to have to explain to someone that we hit their pig! 

The next day, Christy and I went to relax by the ocean while Steve went surfing. We walked along the ocean looking for a spot with less waves. Eventually we came to a river inlet. There were about 15 locals sitting in the water. No waves. We decided to do as the locals and went in to relax. We watched as 2 locals helped a woman walk across the inlet with her belongings. We were catching up on work gossip and friends lives when we saw 2 gringos wading across the inlet . They sat down in the middle and I thought nothing of it. Suddenly, one stood up and all I saw was naked man bum! He went running to the other side of the river and into the woods. The locals, Christy and I started laughing and yelling as the second guy stood up naked and slowly walked to the side of the river and then ran into the woods. What a day! Two moons in  Popoyo! Christy and I relaxed there until a huge fish rubbed up against her leg. Yikes! Time to go see what Steve was doing. We walked back to the surf spot and decided to relax at the Finca (farm) bar overlooking the beach. Christy and I asked for fresh fruit drinks but they did not have anything except beer, soda and water. Beer it was! We swung in the chairs waiting for Surfer Steve to meet us. This is the life! December on a beach enjoying the sun and surf. 

We realized our hotel had the best food in the area and decided to enjoy it. We liked people watching. The staff all appeared to be friends that came to surf the area. We laughed as Big Belly walked in with his belly hanging out over his swim trunks but we all cracked up when he turned around and half his bum was hanging out too! We decided he must have been the guy everyone keeps around for entertainment value! It was a fun group of travelers. I highly recommend this hotel to anyone looking for surfing or a quiet beach. I enjoyed the beautiful walks on the beach. The area is not developed, only a handful of restaurants and hotels are mixed with farmland on oceanfront property. The pigs and cows have some priceless views!

Farmer loading sand into his wagon

As I was walking along the beach, I met a 3 year old boy and his family. They were searching for conch on the rock.

Magnific Rock, Nicaragua
He was intrigued with my camera and I took a few pictures of him. When I showed them to him, he would giggle and imitate me taking his picture. Then he would ask me to do it again and laugh. He was adorable. As I left the beach, I watched his family disappear into the trees and back to their homes. 

Family walking home from the beach

We left Popoyo and drove towards Granada. We stopped to ask directions again back to the main road. We noticed more stuffed men sitting in chairs in the front of homes.
What is that? We would soon find out.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon Cathedral
I left Managua on a mini-van from the UCA station headed to Leon. Fabbiola and her father, Luis, had given me a quick tutorial of what to look for in a safe taxi. She pointed out the taxi license plates should have a red stripe on the tip and the bottom. She also showed me to watch for the driver's information on the front dash. They warned me not to get I to a cab without these markings. It seems there are people that pretend to be taxis and take tourists to an ATM and empty their bank accounts. I was thankful they had explained and reassured me that Nicaragua is the safest of all Central American countries. I made a reservation for December 26 with them and said goodbye. The taxi dropped me off at the Leon UCA station and told me which mini-van to get on for Leon. I waited a few minutes when the van arrived and we started to get in. I looked a the guy and asked about my bag. He told me to take it on with me. I tried fitting it under the seat. That did not work. Then I put it on the seat next to me. I figured worse case, I pay for 2 seats, a whopping $2 for each seat! The mini-van leaves when it is full. These asked me to hand him my bag. He forced it under the back seats and one more man jumped into the van. It was a quick 1.5 hours to Leon. I was excited to explore the colonial town with a strong Sandinista background.

I had reserved a room at La Gordita Posada. I wanted to relax through the holiday in one hotel. I was tired from moving every couple of days for the last 2 months. Monica, the owner greeted me and showed me to my room. She had told me there was a group of people that wanted to go to the beach to watch sea turtles lay eggs. Did I want to go along? Absolutely! I love sea turtles and have been chasing them around the world. Why not try one more time? I ran to the ATM, got some cash and had a quick bite to eat. The guide picked us up and took us to the Juan Venado Island reserve where we were given heap lamps for our walk to the boat. We boarded the small boat and floated down a canal. Bats flying over the river. After half an hour, we arrived at a deck and were told to carefully make our way from the boat to the shore. I looked at the guide and asked about alligators and crocodiles. I did not want to come face to face with either creature! He assured me they were further down the river as he held out his hand. I decided to face fear and go for it. We walked through the jungle to the ocean. We stopped to spot iguanas in the trees, birds flying overhead and crabs scurrying across the sand. When we arrived at the reserve, we looked at the bags of sand which held the turtle eggs waiting to hatch. Then we walked the beaches looking for turtles. We rested on the beach under the moonlight talking about life, love and politics. It amazes me how I have had discussions with people of different backgrounds and nobody gets mad. It isn't a fight. Just a discussion of people with different views. I love these moments. At 11:00PM everyone was tired and decided to make the trip back to the B&B. When we got back, I showered and collapsed into bed exhausted from a long day.
The next morning, I awoke early and went to explore the city in the early morning. I was looking for daily life. Leon is a colonial city that has been the liberal center of politics in Nicaragua. There were periods of time when it was the capital.

Leon's colonial streets.

The following days were spent photographing and relaxing in the city and visiting museums and churches. I had met a young woman, Chantal, that was traveling solo and we decided to explore the area together. We were both given warning about safety and we had a few overly fanatical people harped on our safety. Seemed we were going to be raped, killed or kidnapped anywhere we went. We both had read the safety warnings and asked our B&B hostess Monica about safety. We were smart enough to stick together but our experiences told us these stories were rarities that were being told over and over again. We did not have any issues during our travels in Nicaragua. The guidebooks also stressed Nicaragua was the safest of all the Latin American countries. We decided to use our travel experiences and guts to guide us. We had one incident where a young woman came up and told us to get out of the area and put our cell phones away.  It probably wasn't smart to be sitting on a step getting free internet at 9:30 PM. We did as she suggested.

University in Leon

La Recollecion Church 1786
Leon is the center of the Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua. Throughout the city, there are murals and memorials to the men and women that fought the Nicaraguan President and dictator Somoza's regime.
Today, his former palace serves as a museum to the revolution and former veterans give tours of the building. The most interesting story I was told was by our B&B owner Monica. Her maid told how she had gotten a letter from a high ranking official to release her sister from prison for being a lesbian. She made her way across the central plaza waving a white flag to avoid snipper firing from the roofs of the cathedral and city hall buildings. As I listened to stories about the revolution, I realized my ignorance again. I have learned more about the USA by traveling the world than I ever learned in history class. I am thankful for this time and opportunity to understand the importance of being educated, reading and understanding global politics when making decisions at the voting booth. I am becoming more adamant that politicians need more global experiences rather than money to buy their seats representing me. I am also amazed at the role women took in the revolution. There are so many stories in Nicaragua of the role women took in changing the course of their government. Wow! It makes me proud to see how instrumental woman are in society. In many poor countries, women and girls are treated as lower class citizens. They aren't educated. I have become an advocate of educating our daughters. As I have watched women around the world, we take a strong role and I believe it will be woman that will change this world.
Revolutionary Museum
One afternoon, Chantal and I took  took a taxi to the botanical garden and walked through the gardens with Rene (Monica's father).

Banana flower is one of my favorites...and the bananas!
The flowers and plants were beautiful. But, I was cautious. I had been warned multiple times to stay on the paths and watch out for snakes. I was in the wild and they were everywhere. I only heard one slithering away and it caused me to scream. Whew! I was happy not to be face to face with any snakes.

Merry Christmas from Leon, Nicaragua

As the holidays were approaching, I noticed the difference celebrating Christmas in a third world country. There was little commercialization of Christmas. There were decorations but it wasn't in your face like I was use to in the USA. We didn't see people with handfuls of gifts. That was rare. Maybe for a child. The Nicaraguans were decorating the town square with nativity scenes. They were spending time singing carols and enjoying the holiday with family and friends. I enjoyed the simplicity of the holiday. I thought of all the people that always remind everyone to remember the "reason for the season" but suspect many wouldn't go to this simplicity. We have gotten so use to gifts as the reason for Christmas. I loved the simplicity. It was calm. No stress and hectic parties or expectations of gift giving. Just enjoying the moments with people that had become my travel family. In Leon, Christmas is celebrated on December 24 at midnight. Everyone told us to arrive at the cathedral square at midnight. Chantal and I had dinner with Monica and her father, brother and 4 friends. The food was delicious. We all drank and ate and enjoyed the moment. At 10:00PM, some children came by and performed a customary "La Gigantona". This show was created to reject years of oppression by the Spaniard's. La Gigantona is a type of a big doll, three meters tall constructed on a light wood frame and covered with a colorful dress and lots of ornamentations. She represents the big white Spanish woman with elegance and power. El Enano Cabezon is a small fabric custom figure with a big head symbolizing the underestimated mestizo by the Spanish domination.
One boy recites the verses while boys play a rhythmic drums.  Young boys dress as the La Gigantona and El Enano Cabezon and took turns dancing at the animated sound of the drums. Our group had an 8 year old boy dressed as a cow that had amazing footwork. We clapped and cheered them on during the performance.
 Afterwards, we walked to the square for the fireworks. When we arrived at 11:45, the square was empty. Trash was spread across the square but few people. We looked around and saw a few fireworks in the distance. We all looked at our watches confused. It seemed we missed the party. Baby Jesus was in the nativity scenes and the doors to the cathedral were closed. Music was streaming from nearby clubs. We walked over and entered a club. This was the first time in my life that I was spending Christmas Eve at a club. The music was jamming and the party was in full force. We got drinks and enjoyed the party. As usual, I attracted a little pip-squeak. He walked up and introduced himself to me. It was his 21st birthday. I wished him well and we chatted then he introduced me to his little sister. I wasn't in the mood to babysit and said goodbye. I wandered the club watching everyone and enjoying the music. I found my group and we all chilled...until the little birthday boy came over and picked me up off the floor and lifted me towards the sky. Oh no! This was not going to be pretty! Who did he think he was? Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing? I screamed while my friends encouraged him by clapping. I was relieved when he put me back on the floor. I was given another beer and tried to get away from my little stalker. It was a different Christmas experience! When I looked at my watch, it was 2:00 AM! I was exhausted and ready to go to bed. I told my friends goodnight and started to leave when the little birthday boy walked up and wanted to dance. I said no. He leaned over to hug and kiss me goodbye on the cheek, as is customary in Nicaragua. Surprise for me! He bit my cheek instead!!!! I yelped like a dog and he whispered not so sweet suggestions to me. No! I was not interested. I left and walked back to the B&B. Unfortunately, Rene was awake and decided to complain to me about everything that was wrong in his life. I didn't have patience for it and gave him some much needed straight-talk. He needed to work out his issues with a professional and not me. I knew he was drunk but I had enjoyed a fun and interesting night and I was not going to let him ruin it! I said goodnight and went to bed. 

I awoke on Christmas morning and greeted Monica with a smile and thanked her for the wonderful dinner. I was tired and lazy and ready for a quiet day. Chantal and I spent the day watching Big Bang Theory marathon, eating leftovers, contacting friends and family and relaxing. 
Goodbye Leon!
I packed my bag and prepared to leave for Managua on the 26th. Chantal and I were going to be on the same bus and we wanted to get an early start. Monica convinced us to wait until later. Her driver came to pick us up at 9:30AM. We got to the bus station and saw the line waiting for UCA bus. It would be a few hours! We looked at one another and Jose (taxi driver). No!!! It was going to be a really long day. Jose offered to drive us for $50. Yes! It was a fun ride! Jose laughed and danced as he drove. He educated us on the scams in Nicaragua and taught us to always sit behind the taxi driver so we would not get killed. It was an educational and fun ride. We stopped in Nagarote,  the cleanest and quaintest town in all of Nicaragua. We walked around the central plaza and wished we had spent a few days in this adorable little town.
Nagarote (Chantal and Michelle)

Afterwards, we went for a Nicaraguan specialty called quesillo. It was a homemade cheese, marinated onions and a homemade tortilla doused in fresh cream. It was not healthy but delicious. Eating it was an event in itself! The Nicaraguans place it in a plastic bag. It was the slipperiest and messiest food I have ever eaten. I could not stop laughing as it wanted to slip right out of the bag. If I squeezed it too hard, the cream oozed out of the bag and all over my hand.
We drove on to Managua where I was dropped back at my hostel. I said goodbye to Chantal and promised to meet her in Managua for a trip to the Corn Islands on January 4th. Tomorrow, I meet up with my friends the McCrosky's.