Monday, February 7, 2011

Honeymooners

Want to take your honeymoon in Nicaragua?  Wait, wait – I can convince those of you out there reeling in shock.  Despite its tumultuous past with a bloody civil war, the Iran-Contra scandal and its extreme poverty, Nicaragua is also the land of lakes and volcanoes, of sun and beaches.  It is more affordable than its highly-visited neighbor Costa Rica and while it may not be known for its tourism infrastructure or luxury, you can’t beat its rural charm!  People are increasingly realizing though that despite a tumultuous past, Nicaragua has a lot to offer.

The Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism cites that in 2010 for the first year ever, Nicaragua was visited by over 1 million foreigners.  This influx may be due to the country’s recent publicity in the TV show “Survivor” and it’s past appearance on the Discovery Channel´s ¨Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmer¨ and it´s upcoming appearance as a destination another Discovery Channel program, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” (it should be showing in March I believe…) 

So, it should be no surprise to you then that my college roommate from Alaska, Brianna (Bri) and her husband Ryan decided to come to Nicaragua for their honeymoon this January.  (Of course, my being a Peace Corps volunteer played a large role in their decision!).  They were married on New Years’ Eve in Colorado and arrived in Nicaragua on January 5th.  First, they went to Little Corn Island on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast and they spent a week in a beach bungalow having “couple time.”  After their week of honeymoon, they flew back to Managua and traveled around the western part of the country with me for about ten days.

This was my first time meeting Ryan.  Bri had met him the summer that I left Alaska to do an internship in D.C., and the following January, I left for Peace Corps, and I hadn’t seen Bri for two years.  It was quite a reunion – it was so nice to see her again and our friendship felt so familiar, but it was also different since now she had a husband and had in many ways completely changed her life.  The way Bri raves about Ryan, I already knew I would love him.  After getting to know him during this trip, I can agree that she is a lucky girl to have found him (and also he with her!) 
Reunited! In my community´s central park
They visited my Peace Corps community and stayed in my little pink house and we lived rural-style for a couple days, although it wasn’t such a change for Ryan and Bri as you might have thought.  In Alaska, they live in a “dry” (no running water) wooden cabin on the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Anchorage.  It’s quite a rustic and pioneering way of life – very similar to Peace Corps!  They have an incinerating toilet for solid waste and have to pee outside (at my house, Bri actually commented on my wonderful latrine and how nice and civilized it was!)  They wash clothes at a laundromat or an obliging friend’s house.  In many ways, my Nicaraguan house here was very similar to theirs (except here you can wash your clothes by hand and hang them up outside in the sun to dry, and in Alaska they would just freeze, and also I have running water most days).
Bri and I at my house
Ryan and Bri relaxing at my house
Washing clothes by hand at my house
Nicaraguan Betty Crockers - we made a green mango pie and wore our Nicaraguan aprons
Making sushi at my house (thanks Mom for sending the ingredients!)
During a visit to my friend Jairo’s rural farm, Ryan and Bri milked cows and rode horses.  Bri was thrilled to grind the corn by hand, pat-out her own tortilla and eat it fresh off the fire.  Jairo also showed us about thirty roosters that he was raising and training for cock fighting (which is not illegal in Nicaragua).  First they cut off the extra red parts on the rooster´s head (apparently called the ¨wattle¨ ¨earlobes¨ and ¨comb¨) to avoid having them being bitten while fighting.  Feathers on the bottoms of their bodies are removed as well to avoid injury and make them lighter and more agile.  Little spurs are placed on their feet to provide maximum injury to the other rooster.  Jairo said that people will bet US$500 - $1,500 on local games!
Removing the wattle, earlobes and comb of the rooster to prepare him for cock fighting.  Poor guy!  
The spurs the cocks use during fighting - imported from Mexico
Bri patting out a tortilla under Gregoria´s watchful eye
Comparing the tortillas Bri and I made

Bri trying her hand at milking
Another day we took a visited the Somoto Canyon and hiked/swam for four hours through the beautiful scenery.  In the city of Somoto we also visited rosquilla bakeries which make the traditional Nicaraguan corn and cheese crackers.  Ryan and Bri fell in love with rosquillas and between the three of us; we ate through about three bags in as many days.
Somoto Canyon
Ryan and Bri sharing a smooch in the Canyon
Coffee beans being sun-dried

Visiting a coffee processing plant in my town - right now is harvest season
After time in my village, Ryan and Bri went by themselves to the Miraflor Nature Reserve outside of the city of Estelí.  I have never been, but now I think I’ll have to put it on my “bucket list” before I leave Nicaragua because they had a great time.  They stayed with a local family there and went horseback riding for hours – seeing lush forests and pine trees.
And this is why they call them ¨Chicken buses¨...
After their time in Miraflor, we met back up and headed west to the colonial and university city of León.  
León
León is in an area of the country that is infamously hot, and the suffocating temperature made it was hard to do as much sightseeing as they would have liked.  We did get to do something that has been on my to-do list for while, and that Ryan was especially interested in since he works in geology and with volcanoes – volcano boarding!  What’s this, you ask?  Well, you hike up active volcano cone and ride down it toboggan-style on a wooden board.  It was just as fun and crazy as it sounds.  The hike up was about 45 minutes and very hot and slippery.  The entire volcano was composed of small pumice stones and ash and it was easy to lose your footing.  We were also carting along our wooden boards which were heavy and uncomfortably large.  The volcano we boarded is called Cerro Negro or Black Hill due to its distinctive black cone.  Once we were on top we could peek inside the shallow crater which was emitting smoke and smelled of sulfur.  In the distance we could see four other volcanoes running along the Nicaraguan coastline reminding us that this was part of the “ring of fire.”  On the edge of the crater there was an abandoned seismic measuring shack which looked dusty and unused.  Although this volcano is active, it’s not that serious I suppose. 
Cerro Negro
Hiking up
After reaching the top, we donned our bright our bright orange protective suits and plastic goggles to prepare for the ride down.  Our guide gave us a quick tutorial of what to do and not do: always hold on to the handle, keep your mouth closed to avoid stray pumice stones and ash from flying into it, and use your feet on the sides to steer and as brakes.  Bri and I were the third and fourth people from the group to go and despite the nerves, we both took off down the mountain without hesitation.  The hill was quite vertical and sloped down at a dramatic angle – we could see the orange truck that was waiting for us at the bottom and it seemed very far away.  The driver was waiting at the bottom and had a speed gun, clocking our speeds as we came down.  Ryan was the fastest in the group – he went 69 km/hour (40 miles per hour) and I got up to 49 km/hour (30 mph) before wiping out on my side and scratching up my forearm.  Despite my tumble, once at the bottom of the mountain, I instantly wanted to climb up and do it again.  After we had done it once, everyone was excited to do it again – improving our technique to go faster.  After the ride, which probably lasted about 45 seconds, our faces were completely covered in black ash – when Bri took off her goggles, there was a line of clean skin where the goggles had protected her and the rest looked like one of those cartoon characters that has had a bomb go off next to them; hair everywhere and face blackened.  We found pumice and ash everywhere that night – in our ears, socks, underwear and belly buttons!
We were pretty stylish in those suits...
Bri ready to go!
There she goes! See the truck far down in the distance?
From León, we headed to the colonial city of Granada.  We treated ourselves to massages at a spa ($25/hour!) and relaxed.  Bri had become quite sick at this point with a strong cough and she was visibly dragging.  I could tell that she was miserable – not just because of her sickness, but because it was interfering with her vacation.  She pushed herself though to do some of the activities we had planned.  We spent one day in Masaya – Ryan checked out the Masaya Volcano while Bri and I shopped at the famous market there, buying souvenirs.  We also went to pick up my wedding gift to Ryan and Bri – a special ordered hammock with their names embroidered on the side with a heart between them.  I can just see them both lounging in it in their little red cabin on the mountains above Anchorage.
Fancy dinner night in Granada
Our last day, we spent the night at the Apoyo Lagoon, arguably one of the most beautiful places in the country.  The water is clean and warm, and the surrounding area is a protected nature reserve.  It was a relaxing oasis and calmed our nerves from the frantic, touristic city of Granada – and despite Bri’s sickness, we all enjoyed one last night together.   
Apoyo Lagoon
So relaxed...
The next day we took off early for the Managua airport – Ryan and Bri’s Nicaraguan cigars, hammock and other souvenirs in tow.  Having both done stool tests while they were here (suspecting an intestinal infection), they knew that they were not contaminated with bacteria or parasites, and they were ready to go back to civilization.  Bri lamented that she could not stay longer to make up for the time “lost” while she was sick. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had changed her ticket at the last minute and stayed until the end of January.  But, of course, real life awaited – Ryan had to get back to work at the U.S. Geological Survey and Bri had a few more university classes to finish up this semester before obtaining her bachelor’s degree from University of Alaska Fairbanks in Natural Resource Management.  They were excited to move in together at Ryan’s small mountaintop cabin and settle in to their lives together as a married couple.

I am so grateful that Bri and Ryan decided to spend their honeymoon in Nicaragua, and a portion of their time traveling with me.  Having visitors really makes me feel loved, and I really enjoy sharing this country with others.  I don’t realize how much I have learned about Nicaragua and its culture until I am explaining it to a non-Nicaraguan.  Bri was amazed at how assertive I was against the machista Nicaraguan men and non-confrontational, passive-aggressive people we met.  In hotels, taxis and restaurants I became our biggest advocate – making sure that every last córdoba was accounted for and we weren’t being ripped off (a side-effect I suppose of being a Peace Corps volunteer that lives on U$180/month).  I am so glad that Bri and Ryan were able to experience Nicaragua and see how I live – when I return to the U.S., I know that the transition will be hard at first.  Talking about Peace Corps and my time in Nicaragua will mean nothing to most people.  I’m so glad that my parents, sister, and now Bri and Ryan have visited me here – they can share, in a way, part of my Peace Corps experience and relate to the struggles and celebrations that make up my life here.

Although saying goodbye to visitors is always sad, after Bri and Ryan had left for the airport, I felt oddly excited about returning to the U.S.  It had sunk in that I will be done in just over two months!  Seeing Bri again and meeting Ryan prepared me for life back in Alaska and helped me transition back to thinking about daily life there.  Talking with Bri, I got excited about the little things that I’ll be able to do when I’m back : go to the gym with Bri, train for the Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks in September (we may do a relay team with my other college roommate Lexi), having Nicaraguan cooking nights at their little cabin, and joining a book club that Bri is a part of. 

So, the countdown has officially begun to my Peace Corps “Close of Service” (COS).  Time is flying by and I have to really budget my time now to make sure I do everything I want/need to before I leave in April.  I’m already looking around my house and mentally packing up my things and deciding what will stay and what will go.  The new Peace Corps volunteer who will replace me arrives April 1st to my town (they are already in-country in training), and I will leave soon after.  Alaska, here I come!

1 comment:

BriAnna said...

Oh! I just saw this for the first time! LOVED reading your thoughts about our stay. I'm printing this for my keepsake box. Can't wait for you to get here!!!!!!!!!!