Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Scenes of Nicaragua

We went from high humidity and a temperature in the mid-eighties (Fahrenheit), where we were wondering if we should use the hotel's pool and swatting mosquitoes; to freezing temperatures back in Denver and shoveling snow the next day! Its like we're transported to another dimension ... Well, in fact we were! Our two daily realities are worlds apart.

In an earlier post I observed that many horses in Nicaragua are not well cared for. This was particularly true of the carriage horses in Granada. It was much less true in the countryside, and here is an exception within the city. This is some one's prize stallion on a Sunday ride within Granada. You can see the Cathedral in the background, but note the street is unpaved. Actually, in this case it was being re-paved, but in smaller towns like Esteli it may be dirt or gravel and never paved.

Here is a gentleman in a small village we visited north of Esteli called Ducuale Grande. When you zoom in on his t-shirt you see it pictures baseball players. The sport was brought to Nicaragua early in the twentieth century by U.S. Marines, but is embraced by the country as their own. I have never seen a more enthusiastic crowd, and the game we observed looked comparable to a Little League team.

We found people, in general, friendly although not particularly outgoing towards us. In more remote places we were clearly a novelty, a curiosity. As for photos, they were less reserved than the Mayan cultures of Mexico and Guatemala. I did give out dollars for photos unless I believe it would be insulting. I don't think anyone refused my request to take their picture.

Masaya Volcano

This is the lip of the Masaya Volcano. In our own litiginous society I highly doubt we would be allowed this close. In the park's instructions it says: "In case of expulsions of rocks you should protect yourself under the car."

Note the vultures flying over. Actually, the volcano is more populated by a flock of parrots that are immune to the sulfuric gases and have nests burrowed into the volcanic rock.

Along the Pan American Highway

This is an armadillo for sale. She was asking $40, and was angry all we wanted to do was take a photo (which we paid her for).

There was a few mile stretch where a number of people were along the road, selling parrots.

A common sight is cattle being driven along the road, or grazing on the grass.

Summary Impressions

I must first qualify the following comments with the recognition that my impressions are based upon only a brief visit, and my reading from several sources; aggravated by the barrier of language. I know only too well that things are not what they seem. For instance, you might see this photo as evidence of child labor in an Esteli cigar factory. This girl, in fact, the only child there, was alongside her mother. School is out for the Christmas holiday. Another example was Francisca, a compesina who had us for a beans, rice, eggs and tortillas at her home with dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity. Yet Francisca’s view was that we had bigger problems than she.

The Nicaraguan character seems indelibly shaped by their history of sufrido mucho: colonization, dictatorship, revolution, counter-revolution, devastating volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The sum of these events has left Nicaragua’s economy so crippled that the citizens are said to have the highest per capita debt in the world. They are the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti.

The traffic on city and highway streets was sparse in terms of cars. Horses rivaled buses and bicycles as a means of transportation. With the exception of the Pan American Highway, which runs north & south through the country, roads are a minefield of pot holes – if they are paved at all. Electricity for the country is intermittently not unavailable, and other infrastructure problems are a fact of life.

The economy is largely agrarian, and probably its most well known crop is coffee, which was being harvested, processed, dried and roasted during our time there. However, we also saw crops of hops, corn, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, mangos, beans, tobacco and rice. Their cigars also rival those from Cuba in reputation.

Probably the best aspect of our trip was our guide, Juan Miguel from Matagalpa Tours (subcontracted from Va Pues Tours) who tried very hard to give us a good experience of his country. However, Nicaragua hasn’t had a lot of tourism and they’re still learning what we’d like. The country’s strengths as a tourist destination lie in its beaches and eco parks (jungle and cloud forests). We were seeking a more cultural experience, but Nicaragua pales in this regard compared to countries like Mexico and Guatemala. The actual indigenous peoples are on the Carib side of the country, and are so historically autonomous they often don’t consider themselves Nicaraguans. Spanish colonialism brought a brutal end to most indigenous cultures on the Pacific side, leaving in its wake a racial mix known as "mestizos," who are most influenced by the Catholic church. The largest Catholic Cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is in Leon, but even that was a mistake. It was intended to be built in gold rich Lima, Peru, but the drawings were sent to the wrong city.

Their heritage of resistance also goes back to this time, and they have a folk dance called El Gueguence which dates back to the sixteenth century in which domination is satirized, and resisted by passive-aggressively outwitting oppressors. Even today there are bullet holes from the Sandinista era still riddling some of the buildings, and a downed airplane we encountered.

The United States is sponsible for some of the country’s poverty and oppression. We have been trying to control the country since William Walker, installed himself as president in the mid-1800's. Marines were sent to Nicaragua at the turn of the twentieth century, and we supported the dictatorship of the Somoza family. Anastazio Somoza, Jr. brought on the Sandinista rebellion himself by stealing all the aid money which came into the country following an earthquake. It was a terrible disaster which left the capitol in ruins two days before Christmas in 1972.

Ironically, the United States also influences the culture of the youth of Nicaragua: we saw kids who wore Nuggets jerseys, and sported the ghetto look of low slung pants and oversized shirts. The Nicaraguans generally were carefully dressed, and very clean – even with few possessions and modest houses. I read that the class differences were expressed in the floors of the houses: the poor have dirt floors, the middle class have cement floors, and the rich have tile. We saw a lot of cinder block homes with tin roofs, but also frequently encountered mud & stick walled structures. In the cities there were row houses in various pastel colors, and as in Vietnam, front doors often left open revealing a small living room (inevitably with chairs around a television). What they must think of our houses when they watch movies and television programs from Norte Americano!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Selva Negra

This is Selva Negra where we stayed for two nights (Tuesday & Wednesday). See the entry earlier today about what it was like. This is the place in the rain forest, which is also a working coffee plantation.

El Chile

This is Francisca and her son who hosted our lunch at her home in El Chile. The second photo is in her grandmother´s house, showing the small alter. The third photo is the kitchen, which is separate because its fueled by an open fire.


Its noon, and we have just checked into our hotel in Esteli. I have been unsuccessful at getting my email, so if you have tried to communicate, it´ll have to wait until our return on December 8th.

The trip has gotten better because of our tour guide, Juan, from Matagalpa Tours (subcontracted to Va Pues Tours). Yesterday probably the highlight for us was lunch hosted by Francisco, a campesina and her grandmother, and seven year old son. They live in mud and bamboo structures: one for the grandparents, one for Francisco and her son, and a separate one for cooking. There is no electricity or plumbing, and chickens run in and out; as well as a scrawny dog and cat. In the grandparents home was a small alter with a statue of the Virgin Mary on it. I'll post a photo if I have the opportunity. We were served tortillas, rice, tomatoes, and beans. Francisca feels we have bigger problems than she, implying she is spared the stress of industrialized life.

We spent two nights in Hotel Selva Negra, 9 km from Matagalpa. It is in the rain forest, and we could regularly hear a troupe of howler monkeys. We also saw parrots fly over, and my flashlight fell on a possum at night. The squirrels have unusually long tails, and there are numerous butterflies. The main building and restaurant is on a small lake populated by a gaggle of very noisy geese who strut between the tables.

Selva Negra was established by a German family three generations ago, and is a working coffee plantation. The cottages for guests are nestled among the rain forest, which grows over the roof. Our cottage reminded Judy of a dungeon, brick with so little light she read at night with a flashlight. For me it reminded me of those motels which haven´t been updated since the forties. Its walls were covered with old calendar photos, and the place smelled of a mixture of Lysol and mildew. The food was awful, unless you ordered sausage and sauerkraut, but the place was so remote you had to eat at their restaurant.

In addition to our lunch with Francisca, we went to a weaver´s home in a small place called El Chile. The road to get there was gravel, pot holes, and if wet, would be 4-wheel drive. Marta is a woman from Argentina, who married a man from Belgium. She obviously is well educated and well traveled. Yet she has been in this remote village for 25 years, and said its a life she prefers to the urban lifestyle. She taught the local women how to use a loom, and they produce purses, place mats, blankets, etc.

Pictured here is Marta and the women in her weaver's collective.

Juan then took us to the top of a mountain in El Chile, which we weren´t prepared for, as it was a trail best navigated with a walking stick and machete, neither of which we had with us. Worst of all it was so steep Judy didn´t make it to the top, and I fell three times. When we got back down we were both soaking wet. We were enticed up there for the view, but it was a hike that took a toll on both of us.