Friday, December 25, 2015

Feliz Navidada Desde Nicaragua

The buildup to Christmas here in Nicaragua was such an amazing "not in your face 27/7 commercialization" experience. Don't get me wrong. I am sipping a great cup of coffee with sore legs thighs and a bit of a post Christmas Eve dinner sore head, all the makings of a standard Christmas eve....well the sore head part anyways. Stores and street vendors were selling trees, ornaments, toys and candy and the main square had lights and amazing display booths. The difference compared to the Wallmartization of Canada is dramatic in it's obviousness.

I did not spend Christmas eve day running around looking for last minute gifts, fighting lines at the beer and liquor stores, looking for last minute food items or stopping for a pint to complain about it. What I did was lead a group of 14 excited travelers up Cerro Negro for their Volcano Boarding Experience.

It was a diverse group in both nationality and age.  The youngest was 13 and the oldest 67. The day was hot and as usual the wind picked up the higher we went. The 4 older of the group were slow to climb and the usual 30 - 40 minutes took 90. With big hearts and determination everyone made it to the top. At times during the climb a few of the younger guys came back down to help carry back packs and boards of hikers that were a bit slow. What an amazing show of solidarity and support. Human decency was alive and well on Cerro Negro.

Christmas Eve Day on Cerro Negro

Waiting patiently for the GO signal from me. (Used full zoom from my position)

The fun part of guiding Cerro Negro, aside from all the smiling excited faces thinking I know what I am doing as I lead them up and down the hill, is I get to run down the hill. The average boarder gets going about 40 km/h which when going seems like 130km/h. A few get the hang of it and pick up some decent speed. Seeing the mountain for the first time causes lots of nervous chatter usually punctuated with lots of "oh my gods". After hiking up and walking over to the drop off point the 45 degree pitch is immediately intimidating for the first timer. Many times the excited chatter stops and quiet reflections begin . Now back to running down and as I mentioned earlier. My sore legs and thighs were the result of running the 2388 ft. (728 m) down the volcano, twice! The 2 - 3 minute run is better than anytime in a gym staring at yourself in a mirror that's for sure.

We have the group stand at the drop off point and with some final safety instructions one of the guides runs halfway down to setup a viewing position. We need to see the top and the bottom of the hill and manage the boarders safety using a simple red flag/green flag system. Once the last boarder is headed down the hill both guides head for the bottom

My guide partner Lotta (Finland)  and a guide from another company running down from the top with a boarding in tow

Halfway down and yes, it is as steep as it looks

After a quick meeting at the bottom and check for any injuries, because they do happen, we walk to a meeting point for a brief snack. From there we decide who wants to go a second time. It is consistent that about 50% do not go a second time. A shout out to Quetzel Trekkers . We are the only company that offers the option of a second trip up and down as a part of the day (remember the sore legs and thighs thing), plus we provide snacks and lunch. Remember, all the workers are volunteers and all the money after expenses goes to a variety of charities and causes. You can read the Quetzel Trekkers Blog Here for some great insight.  Please consider this when you think about having this adventure. That may be our  biggest competitive on paper. I think it is that we all volunteer to volunteer and want to be there.

As the day ended it was time to think about Christmas Even Dinner. A Quetzel Christmas so to speak. With a mixed group of volunteers representing Germany, Finland, America, Nicaragua and Canada the pot luck dinner was incredible. With the BBQ blazing (wood coals of course) we had a mixture of macaroni, potato and veggies salads, warm beans paste which was amazing, hot wine, egg nog, corn casserole and breads. Living on the Quetzel veggies burrito has it's limits. This meal was heaven and we were all heathens to be sure.

A fun gift exchange game that is a German tradition (ah the lovely Germans), a few adult beverages and the hilarious busting of a pinata ended the night. Most of us were coming off hikes and regardless of how many times you have done them, they take their toll. Bodies found hammocks. Mitch and Megan and all the members of the Quetzel Trekkers Team were great hosts. Not to be forgotten is  coolest of them all Caña Quetzeltrekker.  Thanks for a fun night.

A Quetzel Christmas - Have fun guy...but get back to work

Our adventure does not end there. Christmas eve in Leon is not a " I am tired and I want to open presents in the morning" kind of family experience. Not by any means. Walking home I took a short detour to the main square. Holy sensory overload. There were people everywhere. Families hanging around and trying food at different stalls. Kids of all ages where out having a great time chasing shiny things that vendors were sending into the air. Speaking of vendors, the streets were lined with them selling all kinds of great food and trinkets. The public basketball court was turned into a makeshift club with pre-requiset booming base driven music. It was wonderfully chaotic. Nicaraguans are addicted to fireworks and at midnight all hell broke loose for the 100th time since I have been here.

We are all products of our own culture and repetitious celebrations. I read recently that one of the most dangerous phrases is "We have always done things that way".  I  believe it pertained to business and the lost art of challenging the status quo. Traditions are amazing. If we take "We have always done things that way" and ten do it another way we can learn to appreciate our own time honored traditions a bit more. Breaking away from them once in a while and see what happens. Maybe you will find a huge park with lots of noise and people on Christmas Eve and have a great time. Maybe, just maybe you and learn to celebrate with out the need for consumer gifts that you really do not need.

Feliz Navidada Desde Nicaragua

Fun Fact. Volcano Boarding originated 13 years ago. Frenchman Eric Barron decided that going down Cerro Negro to break the land speed record for a bike would be a great idea. He hit 174km/h before the bike disintegrated under him. He survived but a few locals in the crowd went "hey, what if we use wooden planks?" and a new tourist activity was born.

Watch Eric Barron's ill fated but historic run down Cerro Negro. Take note of the pitch of the volcano

Score to date:
USA 10
Germany 5
Canada 4
Australia 2
England 2
France 2
Holland 2
New Zealand 1
Sweden 1
Israel 1

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Visa Run With An FSLN Sandinista Captain

Take a minute and honestly think about this question. What were you doing when you were 15 years old? Meet Julio C Pineda. Resident of Leon Nicaragua, Tour Company Operator, family man and a former Captain of the Sandinista Guerrilla Army, (1977 - 1990). When he was 15 he was walking home from playing baseball with his friends. He was arrested on suspicion of training to be a Sandinista (his clothes were dirty), tortured (no details) and placed alive in a coffin for 3 weeks. His family did not know where he was and gave him up as "one of the disappeared. How was I lucky enough to spend the better part of a day with Julio. Well it all starts with the 90 day "Tourist Visa Run"

Julio and I in Managua
When you enter Nicaragua you get a 90 day tourist visa. Before this visa expires you have 2 options. The first is a border run to Costa Rica. You cross the border for 3 hours, turn around and come back and voila, another 90 days. The challenge is that the bus ride is long so plan to stay a night, usually in Liberia. Why not stay the weekend? The beach is close and it's Costa Rica. Not the worst place in the world to have to spend a weekend. Why not Honduras or El Salvador as they are closer to Leon?

CA-4 the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala establishes free movement for its citizens across their borders. Visitors that enter one of the four countries can also travel to these countries without requiring an additional visa.  However, visitors will only be allowed to remain 90 days total in these countries and will need to request a extension of stay at any Immigration Office in the 4 countries if they plan to stay over  90 days.
( . So basically you can not renew in one of the CA-4 countries by crossing the free zone border. Therefor, Costa Rica (or any other country) it is.
Plantano pit stop with Joe D'amico

Option 2 as you read above is going to a local immigration office to ask for another 90 days. You can not do this two times in a row so in March it is off to the cool climes of Costa Rica.  This is the option that I decided to take. Coincidentally, one of the long term guys at the Harvest House, where we call home, Joe D'amico needed to do the same. He hired a driver (Julio) to take him and help him with the forms and asked me to tag along. So at 7am this morning, 3 days before our visas were to expire we were on the road to Managua. Road trip to Managua, how many of you have ever said that sentence?

Never far from our girl Toña
I had briefly met Julio in Via Via a few months ago. He arrived a bit before 7am which shocked both Joe and I. Nica's are notoriously late. We buckled up and Julio drove us through a few of the barrio's that we would normally not go to. Interesting to say the least. Managua was about 60 minutes away without road issues. Nica road issues you ask? Cows, horses, tractors, a bit of roadwork, Cows. The conversation was a bit muted which was fine. I do not know what triggered Julio but he started to share his life story in a real matter of fact way. Joe and I listened and asked the odd question when appropriate. Julio talked for the better part of 30 minutes. He was lucid, passionate and at times emotional all the while avoiding cows and other video game road hazards. Mercifully stopping for gas and snacks you have a variety of options.

Managua, home of the Nicaraguan Immigration Offices and the chaos that was about to ensue. Upon arriving we jumped into the first cue we saw. It might be the wrong one but until we got our bearings better safe than sorry. Well we were wrong as we were not Nicaraguans applying for a passport. We found our forms at window 23. Not behind window 23 but in front. A girl with the form that we needed and a zip lock bag to collect the C5 per form was in front of the window for what ever reason. With Julio's help the we were back in line to hand in the forms. We got this!

Wrong line number 2 was not even a line. It was 3 people standing around chatting. Soooo over to the line that looked right. A young a slightly pretty and absolutely new college graduate immigration office walked up and down the line asking what everyone was here for. When she go to us we chatted for a bit, then she shrugged and with a look of contempt walked away. "This is not right" said Julio with better perception than he realized.

Nicaraguan National Museum
It is now the moment of truth. Our leading lady has now moved behind the glass enclosed counter so over I go with a big dumb grin, Joe right behind me. I was told by many people that this process was to be clean and simple. Well sir, not today. The list of questions included, "why do you want to stay in Nicaragua", "where will you be visiting", "what is the name of the hotels you have booked", "where did you last work and for how long", "How much money do you make each month". Suddenly, she would not talk to me any long. I mean my Spanish is not great but we were just talking without issue. Up goes the Bat Signal and in comes Julio. Same questions plus more all the while she is hand writing everything on the back of my form. It really was just an exercise in control. She had it and I had to deal with it. The same process for Joe. What should have been 2 minutes was now dragging on to 15. Costa Rica was looking pretty sweet right about now.

The long and the short is, she took our forms while we waited. Someone else came back about 30 minutes later and we were told to go pay our C1500 for the 90 days. Nica Progress. Over to another line to pay and back with the receipt for our stamp. Wait, whooaa there big fella. We will call you when it is ready. 15 minutes go buy and I hear my name over the loud speaker. I have to go into a little room and shut the door and I now expect my Midnight Express moment.

Momotombo surrounded by fields of platanos
Victory was mine. A new stamp that is good until March 22, 2016. If anyone is going to be in Costa Rica in March I will be there on March 21 for a few days.
The epilogue to this adventure was that it was not just us.  Naturally when we were standing around waiting we all got to talking to everyone with looks that consisted of exhaustion, hilarity and a few young deer in headlights.  Everyone was getting hammered and abused by the bureaucracy. A few people lost their sh** which did not bode well for them. It was a first time thing not just for us rookies but for long term veterans. I was going to take a picture of the chaos but thought better of it. Honestly, when I was trying to get a police report just after Mardi Gras in Bolivia a while back, that was easier. Scarier? You bet, but easier.

 Julio's Story.

When I was 15 (1977) I was playing baseball with my friends. You know you get dirty when you play baseball. I was walking home with my 3 friends and we were stopped by the army. "Why are you so dirty?" they asked us. "We were playing baseball". "No, you do not get that dirty playing baseball. You are training to be Sandinistas, come with us". That was it. We were arrested and taken to jail. Nobody told my family what had happened. I was so scared. How could I get arrested just for playing baseball?

We were taken to jail and there were lots of men in there but they did not hurt us. I was beaten up allot and asked so many questions. I just wanted to go home. They tortured us and one of my friends died pretty fast. Then, they put me in a coffin (he needed help with this word in English) and I stay there for I think three weeks. I only knew how long after I was released and found out the day that it was. The coffin lid was shut on me and I just laid there. No food no water for a very long time. They would come and open the lid, put their fingers on my neck and flash a light in my eyes. I guess to see if I was dead.

Then suddenly the coffin door opens and they took me out. They said "you can go home but do not tell anyone about this or we will come for you". When I got home my mother cried and said to me, We have 3 choices. First, you can run away to Costa Rica but we are not rich so we can not do that. Second option is joining Somosa's army, the army that just tortured you. The third options was to be a Sandinista. So that was what I was to do.  I was living in Chinendayga so I hid at my mother for 3 days. Then on Christmas day the time was right and me and my two friends ran into the hills near The El Chonco volcano because that is where we were told to go. It was there that I trained to be a Sandinista and it was there that I found the war against Somosa until 17 July 1979. Then we all marched to Managua. I remember that I was still a little boy but the woman were all kissing me and I could fu** any woman I wanted because they were so happy. I was happy because I thought I could go home again.

Then Ronald Reagan that bastard and Gorbachev. Jimmy Carter hated Somosa when he found out what he was doing to the people of Nicaragua and he helped us. But Ronald Regan, I am glad he is dead. I was still in the army when Regan cut off aid to Nicaragua because he said we were communist. He also sent weapons to the country for the Contras who were loyal to Somosa. What else could we do. We had no medicine or food so Cuba and Russia offered to help us. We needed the help. Sure they sent some medicine, but they did not build us roads and hospitals like they said. Instead they sent us more guns. So now we have guns from Russia and Cuba and the Contras have guns from America. Now we have to fight again because of Reagan and Gorbachev....oh and that bastard Oliver North. If he ever comes to Nicaragua, we will kill him. We will never forgive him.

Now I am in the air force and I am shooting in this new war from a fancy helicopter. It is scary at first but I do get to be good. This war does not last very long but I am tired of fighting. Many of my friends have died but we are poor and just do what the rich countries make us do. But you see, in between the wars I went to Cuba and Russia to train. I did not like Russia. It was cold and there was no rice an beans and the people did not care they were indifferent (needed help with this word). I learned to fight better so now I am not scared.

When peace comes our new president, Violeta Chamorro tells both sides to put down their guns so that is what we do. But we are confused. No more war, no more fighting. We can go home. Now I like the army. I am a Captain with many men but my son he is sick. So I take my $1000 that they gave  me for fighting and go to Costa Rica for medicine and today my son is here.

I have no job so I go back to Costa Rica. I work as a bank guard and I do other jobs. Then one day I meet a lady from the USA. She is looking for a security guard at her house and to help with things. When she asks about me and I tell her I am Sandinista she runs to the other room to show me a picture of her supporting us. He husband was the Ambassador to Costa Rica but supported us. I got a job right away. She helped me learn English and I then also go to work at a hotel. First washing dishes but then parking cars. Now beside the old woman I hated all Americans. Then when I was parking a car a very nice and polite American thanked me and gave me $5 tip. I was shocked. It was then I learned that I do not hate Americans because they are people like me, I hate the American government because they ruined my country and killed my friends. That thought changed my life and I was not angry any more.

So here I am, many years later back in Nicaragua, I survived. I like working with tourists but some open tour companies in Leon and it makes it hard for me. My son is alive an healthy and I am happy. My wife's father was a Contra leader but we never tell him about me. We only see him once a month and we want happy times. After so much war, why bother? (personal note, I think this statement explains so much about Nica life and thought today).

-- Personal Note. Julio never went into any details about jail, torture, war or battles. He kept everything at surface level but with a sense of passion and clarity like it happened yesterday. Remember that the war and revolution only ended 25 years ago in 1990.

So, what were you doing when you were 15?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I Can't Feel My Feet

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
 --Anne Lamont

The View Atop El-Hoyo
Stealing from Bobcat Goldthwait's hilareous line in Blow, I can't feel my feet. I know they are there, I can see them but I just can't feel them. At the end of a 2 day, 3 volcano trek there is no other way to explain it, until the next day of course. That was when I woke up. I could feel my feet, my back, my legs, my shoulders my neck and especially my calves. Boy could I feel them! "Be a volcano guide" they said. "It will be fun" they said. I would smack "they" right in the mouth if I could life my arms that high.

Overhead Shot of El Hoyo
Every guide I spoke to who did this trek the first time shares the same physical experience.  I was fading a bit, well lets be honest allot, down the stretch but thankfully it was while we were sitting in La Paz waiting for the chicken bus to take us back to Leon. Others have talked about the dry heaves, puking, head spins and dehydration. I can not think of anything more frightening than being a hiker feeling a bit exhausted and watching your guide throwing up. To be fair, the guides packs are 4 - 7 kilos heavier and it makes a huge difference. when climbing on a 40 degree angle where the path can be mostly sand and scree. Step, sink, step, slip, step sink, breathe and repeat.

After taking the group of 8 up and down Cerro Negro for their volcano boarding part of the trip we ate lunch and geared up. The crew included 4 Germans, 2 Aussies and 2 Dutch girls. We briefed them that the first hour of the El Hoyo trek was going to be hard. We got quite a few "whatever" looks. As a group we had to bring 10 sleeping bags, 5 tents, 10 floor mats, food for 5 meals plus snacks and fruit, cooking pot, a "spice kit", a "shit kit", a "first aid kit" plus 8 litres of water each and personal belongings. It works out to about 15 kilo packs which are heavy enough. Now you have to carry them up a 35 degree sandy pitch over 1000 meters. Ten minutes into the hike the cocky looks of "whatever" became horrified looks of "holy crap".

With my Nicaraguan co-guide Erland
Make no doubt about it. If you plan on trekking El Hoyo in Nicaragua, the first hour WILL BE brutal. How do you deal with hikers who are ready to collapse? Reinforce that it is not a race, stop often for water and most important stop and look around. The views get better with each step forward.

Our crew was strong but we lost one about half way. One of the Dutch girls just could not carry her pack any longer. She was shattered. We took her aside into the shade and had her drink as much water as she could. We took all what she had from her pack and divided it between myself, Erland and Erin, an Aussie who was strong on the trail. After a 15 minute rest she felt good again. Hydrated, a small snack and an empty pack she dug down deep and carried on. As we walked we all took turns talking about Epic Fails we have each had on various hikes. These stories and constant water breaks kept everyone one of our sweaty, out of breath and now dirty selves closer to the first ridge.

Reaching the first ridge
 What an epic battle. Now the hardest part of being a guide is faking it. When everyone else is out of breathe, your not. When everyone is exhausted, your not. When everyone collapses at the first ridge you calmly drop your pack and check on each of them. Then you politely excuse yourself to go pee, find a tree and lean on it without passing out. It then becomes the longest fake pee that never happened. Then come back smiling like all is good in the world.

Seriously, I recovered pretty quickly but could feel my heart pounding away. Knowing that was the case for everyone we took the next hour at a steady pace again stopping often for water and pictures. Hiking/trekking these types of trails is a bonding agent like no other. There are knowing looks, big smiles, high fives, back pats and quiet "how you doing" from everyone. I find it a very interesting experience to be a part of from both the leadership and the client side.

Camping on the crater
From the first ridge came a more modest 2.5 hour climb through thin forests that were just starting to bloom. The odd butterfly would come by and the trees were buzzing with bees. I like the sound of bees and pointed it out. We sat quietly and listened and it became a bit mesmerizing. There was talk about the decline of bees and if bees died off so would humans. Then one of the little bastards lands on your leg and you smash it with no regard what so ever. Then calmly go on about being a bee keeper in your old age. 10 people laughing hysterically at the oddity of the moment.

We gathered firewood along the way and reached the secondary ridge where we would camp. A nice flat area on the volcano just below the sink hole. If you look at the first picture I posted you will see the sink hole and where it sits next to the crater. We were literally camping on the crater of an active volcano.

Today's tents are fast and easy to set up and camp was ready in about 20 minutes. You could feel the decompression happening with everyone. This was a challenging first day but the day was not over. Not just yet.

A well deserved chance to take in the view
But now it was time to rest and take it all in. The hike, the view and the gorgeous and recently erupted Momotombo. To quote Aussie Eric "Shes a Beauty"
If you go back and look at the top picture from this post, the 180 degree shot that is the view we were engrossed in. If you look to the right
you will see the mountain and to its left you will see the lake. That is tomorrows hike.
Tonight we have a sunset hike to manage. With tired legs rested we regrouped for our final accent to the summit.

Up to the Sink hole

Our first stop, the sink hole. Sitting about 500 metres directly above our little campsite this jaunt was no walk in the proverbial park. It was steep, I mean holy crap steep but we forged on as one determined bunch. The sinkhole has scientists baffled. There is no trace of water and no reason for it to be there but nobody has an answer as to why it formed. It's wide that's for sure but not as deep as you would imagine, maybe 50 metres or so but it was impressive enough.

With every small victory it was always impressed upon to take a look around and take it in. This is why you tortured yourself to get here. (even when your guide takes pictures with his shadow in the shot). Sometimes you may not realize how high you have climbed or how far you have come. From this vantage point we could see the vista but also our camp which looked pretty small. I may be repeating myself but years ago when I was hiking the Inca Trail in Peru our guide at the time stressed that "It was not a race. Stop, look around. See where you are, see where you have been, see where you are going while on this trail". Sage advice to be sure. He also mentioned something to the affect that " to many people try and run the trail as fast as possible so they can tell their friends they did it". 
Next stop, the summit at Sunset

As with any good trek it some parts were soul crushing shirt soaking difficult. It is when you reach the summit you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. That is if your shoulders are not so sore that it is impossible to lift your arms. This was no Everest so there was no rush to get down before nightfall and certain death. What I did observe was that for about 20 minutes it got real quiet with everyone keeping to themselves. Some were wandering around, some sat down others just stood quietly as we watched the sun sink through a hazy sky. As I was silently reflecting on what we had just accomplish I suspect the other were as well so I let them be.

As the sun set we turned on various headlamps and torches and heading back to camp. Dinner was being prepared by Erland and the wolverines were hungry. We devoured a pasta and vegetable dinner with hot tea around a now roaring campfire. With the sun firmly set the sky started to light up with the most incredible amount of clear sky stars imaginable. We devoured our dinner in laughter about the day and talked about being ready for bed. After all it was 6:30!!

A steam vent reminding us of who is really in charge

Topping off the 5 million start dinner were roasted marshmallows. I do not care how old or grumpy or tire or whatever you are. If you put a marshmallow on a stick and roast it over a campfire you loose all inhibitions and every marshmallow you ever roasted becomes a childlike story with with smiles and joy. Reaching the summit and the views caused moments of self reflection but the marshmallows..oh man the marshmallows. Sunrise was at 6:00 and first light around 5:15 so it was light out around 8:30 for everyone. I had the duty as alarm clock wake up guy. I fell asleep in about 30 seconds.

Momotombo at Sunrise

I was up and had the fire going then woke the crew up. No sleepy heads at all. They unzipped their tent and with groggy enthusiasm wandered to the edge of the campsite and just watched the sun come up. It would not disappoint. Even Momotombo added a spew of smoke to the morning colours showing off a bit with a little "look at me, look what I can do". I have seen more sunsets than sun rises in my life but this morning could challenge any sunset I have ever stared wide eyed at.

There was to be no rest as we had a long day ahead. After a solid breakfast of oatmeal, raisins and nuts we broke camp and started our decent down the backside of El Hoyo with memories firmly locked into place. Now it was time for a swim.

Yes that is indeed how far we trekked. Down a steep rocky backside and into the lush forests of the valley. Once down the trail was a bit trick in places but not difficult. It we delightfully cool atop El Hoyo and with each step we were reminded that that was a distant memory. On went the bug spray, the sun block, the hats and bandannas and down went gulps of water. Here we go. Uneventful in of itself we reached Laguna Asososca, the crater lake of low lying Volcan Asososca in about 4 hours. The water was warm and washed away 2 days of dirt, sweat, bug spray, lotions and blood. Mother Nature in co-operation with Volcan Asososca has one more sneaky trick up their sleeves. As we lolled in the warm waters with no cares in the world a few odd shrieks came form the dutch girls. "The little fish are biting my toes". Once the shock wore off and being the optimists that travelers are they just relaxed and with big grins "well we have to pay for this back home". (I just checked an yup, people pay to have fish nibble old skin off their feet. News to me). Now of course we all had to try it. The water was clear and you could see these little guys slowly swimming up to your feet. It was such an odd experience. The first nibble and of course you jump (and scream like a 14 year old girl) and scare them all away. The determined little buggers come back and you just settle in for a few minutes as they peck at your toes. Then they get bored and are gone. The things we do!

Back on shore we had Quetzel veggie burritos, geared up and headed to the main road. From there we caught a chicken bus to La Paz and transferred to another bus to Leon.  There were thank you's and hugs all around. This is going to be a pretty decent way to spend my time here in Nicaragua!

Score to Date
Germany 4
Holland 2
Australia 2

Nicaragua Volcanoes climbed: Cerro Negro, El Hoyo, Asososca, Cosigüina

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Heat plus Crazy, Religion and Bad Food

Extended Exposure to Heat and Political Upheaval are United
Have you ever noticed that so many of the conflicts you read about in the news or watch on TV come from areas where there is no snow? There are exceptions to every rule but do you know why we see conflicts from tropical climates? It's because of the freaking heat. Well that and if it's a catholic society god will forgive you if you kill, steal, violently overthrow governments or break all the 10 commandments if you confess to the crimes.  Religion bashing aside, if you wake up and it is already 35 degrees Celsius with no relief in sight and it has been that way every day for, well ever, it would make any sane person think crazy thoughts. Now I am not talking about a 10 day all inclusive beach resort kind of mind fuck where you can sleep in air conditioned rooms, gorge yourself on mounds of food in air conditioned dining rooms or find relief in the ocean for a few minutes until the fear of sharks overwhelms you. The shark thing is my thing.

I am talking about waking up and showing off the night's sweats regardless of the fan that has been on all night. Then while walking the 10 minutes for coffee you are drenched. You shower and changing your shirt 2 or three times a day kind of agony is what I am talking about.  What happens after a while is you really stop giving a shit. The same shirt gets worn three days in a row, no shower today because well I do not care (it really happens trust me) and yes I will go into that restaurant in this sweat stained t-shirt.  Compound that with the roosters at 3 am, the dogs that bark all night long and I mean all night long. Drivers that can't, markets and streets that stink, garbage everywhere, bad music, usually 80s and 90s pop, blaring from every shop and the constant quiet fear of the Gunya. This is when the ability to cause crimes against humanity can enter your psyche.  The constant long term exposure to the sun and the heat does weird things to a person.

Leon and Chinandega are a few of the hottest places in Nicaragua. An easy escape is to Las Pienitas and a day at the beach or a 5 dollar, 3 hour microbus ride to the cool climes of Esteli and Matagalpa, the short bus ride to Grenada or a weekend climbing volcanoes on Ometepe. This usually pushed the inner lunatic back into its cage.  I could probably give a TED talk about the relationship between long exposures to the sun's rays and political coups.  I have tno facts, no research or expert input. I figure if FOX and CNN can run multi-billion dollars news (?) organizations using that same model I can do an 18 minute TED talk. Hang on, TED talks are substantive. Maybe I will create a YouTube Channel and hope the lunatic fringe follows along.

A Thought About Food
I was a vegetarian for a month and celebrated with a burger. I try to eat healthy but you have to treat yourself to Burger King at least twice a month. No pizza for me, I will have the salad. I am going to cut out wheat, sugar, dairy or any number of other items. How many of these have you said or heard. I believe that as much as people try most are what they are when it comes to food, myself included. Yes there are uplifting stories of people changing their food habits and altering their life for the better. Fat Sick and Nearly Dead is one of them.

For me, a week of salad, rice and veggies, chicken and veggies, salad beans and veggies, veggie bean stir fry and beans and rice and veggies on a whole wheat taco is ALWAYS followed up by Wings, PIzza or any number of high salt/fat and delicious food choices. I will not lie, I am what I am when it comes to food. Like most I will not fully change until I get a scare or it is too late.

My food crack, in no particular order is, Chicken wings, pizza, pepperettes, chef boy are dee, doritos, pepsi, snickers, Timmies maple dip, assorted no tomatoes with hot peppers,  blue berry pop tarts, and MacDonald Fries. There it is, what I hammer into my colon whenever I get the chance and because I have people who care for me, whenever I am alone and nobody is watching. "Eat like nobody is watching"

I do my best when I comes to eating but sometimes the train just runs off the rails and its rail cars strewn everywhere. If I have a salad then its followed bya snickers and a pepsi. Veggie stir fry well then it is wings, pizza and another snickers. What? fruit entered your system. You need grease, salt, sugar, anything fried and monopsudogludamate (just taking a shot at the spelling)

Good food. I feel better when I eat it. Bad food, I feel more satisfied when I devour it. What is the answer? Of course it is in balance, moderation..blah blah blah. The real answer is if you want it then eat the nasty bad for your colon meal. You are not now nor will you ever be an elite athlete. And if you do extend your life by 5 years because you ate healthy those 5 years at the end of your life you will probably be eating applesauce and oatmeal and pooping your pants three times a week. So eat and live now!

Sunday Fun Day at the Cathedral
It was another Sunday and another odd celebration at the Cathedral on another sunny day in Leon. As I sat on a bench in the Central Park sipping my morning coffee I notice a crowd gathering in front of the cathedral. They are packed a shaded area as nobody standing in the sun in Nicaragua. I see a technician pulling wires from inside the Cathedral to a waiting camera mid square. Just then a band starts playing from a side stage I did not see and rocking the microphone was an older priest wearing his Sunday best. With his white and purple frock blowing from a fan in front of the stage he has the crowd that has gathered singing along to a tribute to the Conception de Maria. Yes sir, the Maria party is still going strong.
To my immediate right I heard singing and chanting and to no surprise a long line of people marching behind a group of priests (what is a group of priests called anyways?) who were walking and chanting towards the front door of the cathedral. All this before 9AM on a Sunday.
The rocking Priest we will call Judas. So Judas Priest stopping singing leaps off the stage which was about 3 or 4 feet high and without missing a beat walks to join the surging masses. It was impressive to say the least.  Everyone converges in front of the Cathedral doors which open to shouts of "quien causo tanta alegeria!" (oh man here we go again) and into the church they go, singing and shouting.  Religious passion sure is ripe here in Leon.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

It's Quetzal Time

Quetzal Trekkers León Company Tag Line
We are a non-profit volunteer organization offering adventurous hikes to volcanoes in the areas around León, Nicaragua. All profits are donated to locally-run projects that support at-risk children.

I have spoken about Quetzal Trekkers and the work they do in Nicaragua and Guatemala. A non profit tour company who gives any/all profits from their tour operation business to local charities and community projects. They recently started a Scholarship Fund to help children in need go to school. (books, uniforms, transportation, and other school supplies). I have seen some of these kids first hand and aside from their excitement, the gratitude of their families is something to behold. Honest sincere gratitude.
They have been such a success that other tour operators in the area have started to donate monies to charities as well since Quetzal has developed a quality reputation and has become the first stop for many adventure seekers. They are a bit more expensive and to compete with the feel good story other operators have reduced their prices to a very attractive level. Everybody wins!

Why the promo for Queztel? Well you are looking at their newest Volcano and tour guide. Yes sir, teaching English and Volcano guiding in Nicaragua.  I believe this is a fine reason to wake up every morning. My first hike is Monday to Cerro Negro and El Hoyo.
Here are the details 

This Saturday is my final class until the second week of January. With all that time off I can commit to a full guiding schedule. Of course I will keep my eyes and ears open if they need help in the community. When school starts in January I will go back to teaching and help Quetzel part time as they need me and where I can fit time in. It is a win/win. It will be nice to get off my butt and get back on the trail full time.

They are as good as they look
I have a personal project I have bouncing around in my cranium. I finally found someone to bounce it off and it might get some traction. There is a Swedish guy here that is working for a local NGO. (for whatever reason this town is filled with Swedes and Norwegians) I was talking with him and we are co-proposing a grassroots project where I would teach English to kids who can not afford lessons and in return they will teach me Spanish. The reason behind the language swap is to teach the kids that bartering is better than begging. Yes I could teach English for free and they would benefit. However they learn more when they give back, not just take. I am excited to create my own project, even small. You never know where it could lead.

It must be ice cold in a glass bottle

Until then...its TREKKING time and believe me it's not a moment too soon. I have developed a fetish for Pinguinos and it's getting out of control. Pinguinos you ask? They are chocolate covered cupcakes filled with scrumptious vanilla icing. That is why I have to get trekking full time. I go down the sweet trail and I stay on the sweet trail and it's no Yellow Brick Road. Well its the scary part of the Yellow Brick Road with the talking trees and I do not want to see any sugar induced talking trees any more.

Pinguinos+ Ice Cold Bottle of Pepsi = Paradise

Paradise Found

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

La Purisima - La Noche de Griteria

 I have seen many celebrations in Nicaragua and other countries in Latin America. Last night it was  La Purisima - La Noche de Griteria here in Leon. Hands down this Frankenstein of religious celebration to the Virgin Mary mixed with the pagan Halloween door to door gathering of candies and toys is topped of with screaming and all night fireworks like a bright red cherry. A religious rave minus the ecstasy.

I write this listening to day 2 of round the clock fireworks and firecrackers. They reach a crescendo when the local air raid siren goes off at 6:00 and midnight. Thankfully I have never been in a war zone and could not compare any moment in my life to such a situation. However, using my imagination and the long list of war movies I have watched last night sounded like "a war zone". More on that later.

The main Cathedral was draped and lit quite beautifully as were the surrounding buildings. The central park was packed with revelers anxious for the big moment. It was something I was told, well warned about but had no idea what to expect.

There was a service in the cathedral and we could hear it over loudspeakers but the main door was closed. This was a part of what was to come. I was just wandering around taking it all in. Suddenly the church service ended and the crowed got eerily quiet..all at once but for some sporadic whispers of "are you ready", "it's exciting", "I am so happy", "look, that guy (nodding towards me) has no idea what's happening". Sad but true, worse yet was that I understood him and smiled back like a big dork. It was the strangest non drug induced large crowd thing I have ever was a part of.

At that "fish out of water" moment the crowd started cheering. OK Ken just cheer. The door to the Cathedral opens and in the nicest blue hues sits a statue of the Blessed Virgin (no not Dakota Fanning). It went back to creepy silent and the priest was saying one thing or another.

Have you ever had general admission to a concert? You know that exact moment when the main band hits the state the crowd surges forward. Mix that crowd with religious fervor, modern technology and a lone white guy pin balling around not knowing what was going on you could appreciate that at that moment i was just a little bit scared for my life.
It was at this moment that I felt something in my hand. A little girl of about 7 who was standing next to me with her family had her hand in mine. As I looked down, she looked up and smiled her 7 year old smile. Then just like that she let go and moved forward with her family. The Blessed Virgin now had my full attention.! Damn religious symbolism really creeped me out for a good minute.

 I was lost in my head trying to figure out what had just happened when I was blasted awake by the priest yelling "Quien causa tanta alegeria" (Who causes so much happiness). In one roaring voice the crowd screams back "La concepción de María!"  It was a nice moment and the 3 or 4 seconds of this exchange allowed my equilibrium to return.

KaBoom! Firework explode behind the now spotlit Virgin Mary, the air raid sirens start wailing full tilt and more fireworks explode all around. Total sensory overload. People are cheering, crying, smiling and generally enjoying the moment. When the sirens died down the drums of the El Tamborilero started. These kids were impressive

 Standing in from of the main door to the Cathedral were 12 La Gigantonas. They are part of the Myths and Legends of Nicaragua and are followed around by El Enano Cabezon, El Coplero and El Tamborilero.
La Gigantona represents the tall white Spanish woman that came with the conquistadors. El Enano Cabezon is a small dwarfish figure with a big head symbolizing the intelligent mestizo. El Coplero is the person who recites the popular folk verses and the Tamborilero is the one who plays the drum.
Its a fun sight when a group of 4 of them perform for the tourists. When there are twelve Gigantonas and Enano Cabezon flailing in multicolored unison while all 12 drummers hitting it with perfection it's somewhat awe inspiring. I had no idea what El Coplero was doing during the chaos. This chaos went on for no less than half an hour. Fireworks, sirens, screaming, drumming, dancing and lots of smiles and laughter.

At the back end of the park there were a series of displays that the crowd turned and lined up to view. Now, these have been in the park for almost 2 weeks now and most people, myself included have spent time admiring them. However, as a part of the ritual most of the crowd lined up and passed by each one in an orderly procession. Remember, there were at least 3000 people here, maybe more.

I had my fill and after watching the guys light the fireworks for a bit longer I headed home what I thought was the quiet sanctity of my neighborhood. As with most things in the country I could not have been more wrong. The next phase of the night was about to begin. The viewing of the personal montages, memorials, displays and alters in peoples homes.

 These were no Wall Mart buy it and toss it up there displays and it showed in the pride of the homeowners faces. But here is where it gets fun and a bit nuts.

Remember this?"Quien causa tanta alegeria" . Now people ran from house to house yelling it and in response the home owner yelled back "La concepción de María!" the gave out candy. It was fairly sane downtown. At this location a lady walked up while I was grabbing my candy to go (you know I got right in there for free candy) and started singing. What now caroling? Within seconds people ran and joined in. I am talking young kids, teenagers, adults and the elderly all singing. I did not get everything they were singing but it was a tribute got it. The Blessed Virgin. It was quite amazing and solemn. When the singing stopped the magic of the moment was crushed by the sudden insanity to rush for candy. This house also gave out large plastic cups which I could see were being used by the candy wolverines to carry their loot. A nice gesture to be sure.

This scene was repeated on all streets as I walked home, filling up on candy and treats. I live in Park San Juan, a full residential neighborhood. It was bedlam! The hoarded masses were everywhere running house to house yelling "Quien causa tanta alegeria" . As I joined in I was being pushed around by young kids and at one time a lady of about 80 bumped me, smiled and got in front of me. It was awesome. It was a Fun and Friendly Candy Black Friday. Same chaos, only smiles.

I ran back to the hostel, grabbed Brenda who was a few rum and cokes in and off we went. The first house we went to gave us little plastic bags of some type of raspberry puree. Gringo lump of coal, until we saw kids gorging on them. We wandered the streets in awe at the spectacle. We got candy, noisemakers, a packet of coffee and a comb. I was jazzed on candy and had slurped a Pepsi on the way home. It was going to be a sleepless night to be sure.

During what aliens must sure had thought was a Zombie Apocalypse the ever present fireworks were going off in all neighborhoods. The night faded and we all went our separate ways to count and devour our loot. As I lay in bed on my sugar buzz silently whispering "ah candy, my precious" I had thought that the fireworks were louder and more sustained. Nah, Candy buzz. Louder and a bit louder but nothing crazy. Down goes another caramelo.

Midnight comes and so does the ever present Air Raid siren. However this time is was signalling "GO TIME". A full frontal beach landing of fireworks and firecracker. I went out into the garden and just stared in every direction including over my head. Streams of colors, hisses, bangs, pops and tat a tat tats! There was no sleeping now. Each minutes getting louder and a bit more nuts. 12:30 and no end in sight. 12:45 and bang, pop hiss....silence. Nothing but the sound of everyone in their rooms mumbling "oh thank god". And with that, it was over....except for the sugar buzz.

Here are a series of clips during the initial sensory onslaught. At :35 what sounds like a long buzzing is the air raid siren. The audio is loud so turn down your volume.

Quien causa tanta alegeria" 
  "La concepción de María!" 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Making No Cents With AdSense

*** This post was about putting Google Ads on my blog. This morning the little bastards are gone. That means some of this content will not make sense but I put it out there already so it stays.

I hate advertising! We get inundated with it where ever we go and no matter what we do. The Web, TV, Radio or walking the streets its advertising overload. I try and listen to the Toronto Maple Leafs games on web radio. with Jim Ralph and Harry Neale whom I find hilarious in that school boy pull my finger kind of way. But the commercials! Non stop and not funny in their attempt to be humorous.
Well I was thinking about it last night during the midnight "griteria and firewoks (more on that in the next post) and I realized I was being a complete douche posting ads on this site yet screaming that advertising was disgusting. All for a few possible dollars. What dink!  I am over it ***

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming


Blogger, the website that I use to write this blog has a feature called Adsense and is exactly what you think it is. I can place google ads on my blog and make pennies with the click through and page impressions. I can put the ads at the top, the bottom the side or any combination there of. I have little or no control what ads are put on my site but Google being what it is will choose them for me based on my content. No big deal really so I decided to add it yesterday to see what happens.

Here is my question to you. Do they look like sh** (obviously yes) and lessen the pages you are reading? I would really appreciate any and all feedback so lay it on me. Are google ads something that you are just accustomed to seeing on every webpage you go to? I can turn them off with a simple click of the track pad.

Here is a telling statistic. In Q1 2014, Google earned US $3.4 billion ($13.6 billion annualized), or 22% of total revenue, through Google AdSense so it is certainly and important part of their business model.

To that point, I have been receiving encouragement and positive messages from readers and friends.  I would really like to hear from any of you out there in the world. Do you read this blog often? How did you find it? What do you like or dislike about it? Is there anything you would like me to write about while I am in certain countries or areas? Do you want information on working and living in certain countries? I can track countries, states and provinces but if you want to tell me where you are from that would be cool to.

Countries That Have Viewed This Blog At Least Once
Personally, I think you can find a story in most everything during your day if you just take the time to stop, watch and listen. I write about what I see, hear and think while trying to inject a little bit of humor where I can. I may go off the grid and get political or philosophical as sometimes the world or specific situations I see frustrates the shit out of me and my world. I will keep that to a minimum but it does give me great relief in doing so. Like religion my personal views do not need to be jammed down anyone's throat. As the great Ray Manzarek says after one of his many rants in his book Light My Fire, "sometimes I just need to get that off my spleen" I love that line.

I will not post names of people unless they approve and cite content that I use from different sources. I think you will notice I rarely review or proof what I write. I click publish when I am done and I hope the grammar and spelling are at least readable. This may actually be symbolic of how I live my life.

It is fun when a new country flag appears on my view list. I recently was viewed by someone in the Democratic Republic on Congo but no flag appeared. No worries about that. It's fun knowing you are out there and would love to hear from you. If you know someone from a country not show and want to share this blog link please do. You can make a guy giddy with excitement when new flags start showing up. To date there are 67 countries, 35 American States and 8 Canadian Provinces so thank you for that. Yes I suspect it is a bit of an ego trip but I am embracing it with out being a total douche about it.

Finally, I like to write. I find it fun, creative and relaxing. I also do not have the largest vocabulary so it is simple by nature. So again, thank you for reading and following from where ever you are. I look forward to hearing from you, or not that's OK to.

Just remember, "Deaths' Coming, Life's Foreplay. (yes I was drunk on Chicha in Peru and got that tattooed on my back. It sounded like a fine idea at the time.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I Have A Past But I Dont Live There Anymore

I was raised Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic schools and as a child attended church regularly and reluctantly. However, I am not a religious man. I do not believe in the forced religious dogmas that have caused most of the agony and suffering in human history. I am developing a bit more of a spiritual out look the more I discover the world. So spirituality if we have to give it a label, but religious. No, not my thing.

With that out of the way, I did find the greatest vanity license plate ever on the back of a local chicken bus here in Leon. "Yo Jesus". How awesome is it that the chicken bus I am taking to the beach today, on a Sunday no less has Yo Jesus vanity plates Yo Jesus,Take the wheel. Get me to Las Peñitas where the Pacific Ocean, cold beer, cool breezes and warm sunshine awaits.

Here it is. What I can assume is the typical beach shot that everyone has taken. This is not intended to be an "in your face suckers" picture. Not by any means. What I am showing you is what you probably do not expect to see when you think of Nicaragua. The rainy season is now over and it is a beautiful sunny day. Temperature is 33 Celsius, there is not a cloud in the sky and a slight breeze is coming off the ocean. I have a cold Victoria and a book in front of me and its 11:00 am.

I am not much on fiction but I pulled The Black Book by Ian Rankin from the book swap shelf at the hostel. Its a detective mystery and the reviews plastered all over it say the standard things that reviews plastered all over books usually do. "Spellbinding", " A page turner", "Rankin joins the elite of British crime writing". What a load of egotistical crud. Anyways, started plowing through it and it just may be OK.

I think I may have posted a pic like this before during my TEFL graduation beach weekend but alas here it is again. My Sunday home away from home away from home Playa Roca. Decent food, cold beer and a great view of the ocean.

So you see where I spend my Sundays, now the questions is how do I get there? This brings us back to Yo Jesus. There are an number of chicken buses that leave from Sutiava Market, also known as “El Mercandito”, located in the Sutiava neighborhood in the western part of town. (I am looking at new digs in that area this week.) As it was Sunday I grogged out of bed around 830, grabbed my book and filled my pockets with Cordobas and off I went. Anyone who knows me can attest to my love of walking. From my place to Sutiava Market was about 40 minutes. Easy stroll by Canadian standards. A "you are crazy get cab or bus" by Nica standards. The walk was peaceful although everyone is gearing up for La Purísima. This celebration to the Virgin Mary is to be a bit of controlled insanity one night then the next people open their homes to whomever want to enter. There you can view personal alters dedicated to the Virgin Mary and give you food, drink and candy. I am down for that celebration.

Nice Chicken Buses
So back to the bus. I found the chicken bus easy enough and after giggling at the vanity plate and hopped aboard. The bus only leaves when full and we were not even close so it was chill time if its possible to "chill" in a sauna. What is a chicken bus. Well the original chicken buses are in Guatemala but the name carries throughout Central America. They are old and well past their prime American school buses. Some are painted with elaborate schemes, have intense sound systems and are really quite beautiful.

My Chicken Bus
Mine, well not so much. (photos are from google images but are pretty consistent with my day). As for the chicken part, you bet your ass that if you ride them long enough livestock will appear. Hell there is no reason they can not enjoy the ride to the slaughter shed.

We are about 20 minutes into our wait and with each minute the temperature both inside and outside the bus climbs about 1 degree. I am actually getting used to sweating all day long so it's not bothering me to much. Girls and ladies are climbing on and off selling water, pepsi, cookies and I am pretty sure Amway. The seat next to me is vacant as a family of about 8 start boarding. They are not little people and have 2 infants. I am suddenly surrounded on all sides by the happiest group of Nica's. They are laughing as they pass the babies around like bags of tomatoes. The largest lady sits next to me, smiles and I give hear a smile and a hola, buenos dia. BOOM goes the dynamite and the Spanish is flowing. Each member of the family takes turns talking to me in rapid shot Spanish. "Where are you from"? "Do you like Leon"?, Do you like Nicaragua"?, "How old are you"?, "Do you like the heat"?, "Is Canada cold"?. It was friendly and fun and I held my own. The woman next to me was named Virginia and she was taking her family to Poneloya, which is the beach next to Las Penitas. Her and I chatted quite a bit and she told me she could understand my Spanish but "I needed to keep practicing" I took that for the compliment that it was.

 Here are some observations I made on my 45 minute bus ride. Nica's dress nice, even when going to the beach. The men are in slacks and collared shirts with nice shoes. The woman are in slacks or jeans and light blouses. There are no beach bags loaded with stuff. They know that it is hot and cramped and do not like it (as expressed by my new friends) but "complaining does not get us there faster" I was astutely reminded. They are friendly and helpful with each other and the tourists that are on the bus. I just do not get the jeans in the heat. But I am on Nica time and it's their house. I am just visiting.

Now let me tell you about the average tourist on a hot and steamy chicken bus going to the beach.  Wide eyed and entering with a mixture of fear and confusion their overstuffed day packs still slung tightly to their backs. Little wonder they get people pissed when they try and maneuver about the bus and their ignorant packs smashing heads and shoulders along the way. This inability to take them off and carry them confounds me. I use to see it on the busiest of street cars in Toronto as well. If they find a seat they site erect like a tin soldier staring straight ahead like nobody would notice them. If standing, they are holding on for dear life. Virginia pointed this out and giggled, "He must be new". Funny shit. Now as with any bus there are stops along the way. Our foreign tourist leans forward to try and look under, around and through anyone in front of him I guess expecting to see the beach repeating his neck craning at every stop. This of course is a generalization of new and young backpackers testing their mettle. I love that they are out in the world trying. It actually makes me smile not this my blessing is their gold medal standard. Most others I saw were polite, gregarious and casual. This was not their first rodeo to the beach.

First beach stop, Poneloya. The bus starts emptying including my friends who all take the time to say good bye, have a fun day. The two foreigners (funny me calling someone a foreigner) stare at me with "what do we" do glances. I turn and look out the window. When I turn back, the are gone. I giggle knowingly. They got off at the wrong beach. Well they have to learn. I had to along the way.

Well we get to the beach and I get dropped off in front of Playa Roca, grab a cold beer and sit. My journey is done until sunset. A hour or so goes by and I hear a "Hey dude". There is Brenda from my hostel and her boyfriend Matt. A real nice couple from Toronto. They ordered a small bottle of rum, I order a beer and we while away the afternoon with a few others who arrive.  A late arrival is Fran, a local who is an aspiring tour guide. "Keeeen" he says "Teleeeka, Dec 22, you go?

Even A Beach Bar Is Tired Of Wifi
It was a nice afternoon. We ran across the street for burgers and the shop had this sign out front. I think we have all seen it at one time or another. For me it struck a chord that even at the beach on a beautiful day staring into mobile devices is alive and well.

The young owners, who were of cell phone appendage age, gladly explained to me that they get confused by people coming to the beach with their phones. They had wifi when they opened but people would not talk, just state at their phones while they ate lunch together. "So we turned off the Wifi, maybe to make couples happier", Anna said in broken English. Turning off the Wifi hoping to make couples happier. Simple in it's logical beauty.

 To no surprise my young bus pals who got off at Poneloya show up. They sit near us, see me and are perplexed in their observations. The day crawled along slowly and methodically while the sunset was fast and furious. With a full belly and a bit of a wobble it was time to Chicken bus it home. Oh forgot to mention that it cost me 12 Cordobas or C.60 to take the bus to the beach. Standing on the side of the road, waiting and we hear "who needs a ride to Leon". It was Kat Derning who also use to live at our hostel but has since moved out. Get in the back and lets go! She was piling into the back of a small pickup truck and without hesitation (or clear though) we jumped in, 10 of us! We had a 30 minute drive down a busy highway and we were packed into the back of a small pickup that was and in definite need of immediate repair. What could possibly go wrong?

The ride was soul cleansing. Cold air that I have not felt in 2 months cleaning and drying me. A silhouetted view of Telica and the surrounding mountains. Nervous but positive chatter with new short term friends. I had no idea who 6 of them were. Half way home the truck slowed down and pulled over on the side of the dimly lit highway. I casually blurt out. "I guess this is where we all get whacked"...dead silence and saucer eyes stare at me. "Piss break" come a shout from the driver breaking the silence. No long term friendships to develop with this crew that's for sure.

We get to Leon easy enough but the traffic is pretty bad for Leon.  The party of La Purisma is ramping up so there will be fireworks galore and no sleep for the next two night because of the ongoing obsession with fireworks. I am ready for your celebration Virgin Mary....said Ken never.

Thankfully there is Wifi at the beach
I snuck a picture of these two staring into their phones with life happening all around them. Two hours later they had not moved nor looked up.

Judgmental? You bet. Confused?  Quite a bit more.

Rave on John Dunne, Rave on.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Victoryyyyyy !

Do you know that feeling you get when you are driving along minding your own business and cop pulls up behind you. You get that unreasonable "feeling of guilt" even though you have done nothing wrong, well nothing wrong lately.

In the last 10 years or so I have physically walked into a brick and mortar bank no more than 5 or 6 times. When I do I feel out of my element, a bit of a fish out of water if you will. Strange but true. Well like the police pulling up behind me when I drive it appears that I have that same feeling walking into a bank. With the creepy quietness and all eyes staring someone in here knows something bad I have done... years ago....while in Canada no less... and I am about to be caught. 

Dear Mom, I have never done anything bad in the past so ignore that last statement.

4197.5 very colorful Cordobas
I met Paige for a farewell coffee this morning as she takes that big bird back to cold and snow New Jersey tomorrow. We went to the glorious and without issue ATM so she could get some travel money. Now it was my turn.
I know I am only trying to cash a payroll check but an weird feeling overcomes me. Maybe it was the frowning and very large gun toting security guards that gave me the once over with the magic wand as I walked through the main entrance. Or the Orwellian feeling of being under surveillance by any number of hidden and not so hidden cameras. How about the very confused and quite obvious knowing stares  of  "what is gringo boy doing in here? The tourist banks are downtown. Well I did what any other traveler would do. I put my head down and walked to the teller queue hoping nobody would notice me. Yup, that worked well. I turned to talk to Paige and she was gone! She had bolted for a comfy chair isolated from having anything to do with me. Smart girl that Rutgers grad except we were the only two Gringos within 8 city blocks so you can run but you can not hide Jersey Girl!

Nah, seriously. It was uneventful and I only did one really dumb thing which had to be expected. Normal banking routine. Stand in line and wait for a teller who sits behind what I would assume was bullet proof glass. I hand over my cheque and passport (I hate giving anyone my passport) and noticed her nails were manicured quite nicely with light blue polish. She smiled her bank teller smile and then proceeded to look at the cheque and my passport from various angles. Here is where our hero does his dumb act. She asked me to sign, put my passport number and my address on the back. Easy Peasy. Signature on the signature line, check. She holds up my passport behind the bullet proof but very clean glass partition  so I can see it, passport number, check. Address, no problem (here it comes). I proceeded to confidently write my Canadian address on the back of the check and  with a somewhat cocky push I  slide it back to her. There you go toots! What else you got.

She looks at me with a knowing "you dumbass" look. Do you have an address in Leon she says? As  it in Spanish I need a few seconds to process it and upon doing so realized that a Canadian address on a Nicaraguan paycheck probably would not do. So meekly I said  Una quadra y media Norte de Parque de San Juan. With that knowing smile she leaves her walled world taking my paycheck and passport with her. "Ah man, here is where it all goes down!!" I suddenly think. 

** As an aside, there are no numbers addresses in Nicaragua. My address is what I said "Una quadra y media Norte de Parque de San Juan" or a block and a half north of San Juan Park. The address to the TEFL School is "From San Francisco Church, 2 blocks and 75 meters west". I have no idea how but it works. Mail gets delivered and taxis are always spot on. **

What seems like 10 minutes, but in reality was 1,  my girl comes back and starts chatting with me in a happy friendly manner like I am a real human being. We talk about what I am doing in Leon, how do I like it, have I heard about Montotombo erupting. When she asked me why I was at that bank and not at a tourist bank I told her that I needed to have real world Spanish practice. As the bank is eerily quiet and I most certainly am not, the teller next to my girl either said, "what a great idea, good for you" or she called me a " lost brown turtle". I am not 100% sure really.

I get asked if I want dollars or Cordobas. I say Cordobas because I tell her I would then have to walk to the corner and exchange it with one of the street money men. "They are fine too" she casually mentions. On a personal note the money changers in the street, and there are quite a few, give the bank rate so they are not making money on the exchange. I have used them often and they are unusually polite and friendly. I think that they are paid by the banks directly to exchange American Dollars for Cordobas and at the end of the day give the American dollars to the local banks. There are no transaction records and so a bit of possible laundering takes place. 
Not my Monkey, Not my Circus.

With my cheque cashed and a pocket full of colorful Cordobas I head to the local gringo coffee shop where I buy an overpriced but delicious coffee and a chocolate something or other. I take my treats to the central square where I sit on the steps of the cathedral to enjoy the still cool morning. From there I watch young western back backers staring into their phones oblivious to the world around them (the central park has free WiFi) and  the locals go about their daily business all the while relishing in my banking victory. Not bad for a Lost Brown Turtle.

Thanks for the Inspiration Drama!