Volcano Surfing!

Disobeying Marissa’s explicit instructions (sorry, girl!), I went volcano boarding (fun article about it here). The tour operator I signed up with didn’t have the safety gear we’d heard about – Big Foot Hostel, the originators of volcano boarding, have you wear safety orange jumpsuits and goggles. My tour company had none of that, so I was worried at first… until I found out why. Big Foot’s boards have steel plates bolted to the bottom, so you literally fly along at 70 km/hr, whereas ours were simply wood, so we went fairly slowly. But I’m getting ahead of myself..

After a bumpy ride through dirt track in a 4×4, constantly stopping for livestock and tractors, we arrived at the base of Cerro Negro volcano. It’s the youngest, and one of the most active, volcanoes in the world. I love volcanoes! Each one is so unique, alien, and spectacular. Because this one is so young, there is zero vegetation on it. The landscape is barren black rocks of differing sizes – sometimes large boulders, other places pebbly or even like sand.  As we got closer to the crater, there were pockets of smoke and gas, weirdly colored rocks and fine powder. The ground was warm, even hot to the touch in places. Going down into the crater is not recommended because the gases can overwhelm you.

It was a beautiful 45-minute hike up to the top (and 45 seconds down!); we were rewarded with stunning views of the other volcanoes in the area, and could even see out to the sea. The winds were wicked strong, and the sun was setting. For some reason there were also a lot of strange insects amassing at the top, including one cluster of the famous “killer bees” huddled on the ground against the wind. I decided not to pet them.

The few times I’ve snowboarded, I’ve always made that mistake of catching the leading edge on the snow, which stops me dead and sends my head slamming into the ground. Which is not a big problem on ski slopes, I just end up with a headache at the end of the day. But.. I thought it best not to attempt such a thing on volcanic rock.. so, I decided to go with one of the sit-down sleds instead.

Ironically, after all the terrifying stories we’d heard, it was actually kind of a slow slide down the mountain. I could fairly easily control my speed with my feet, but most of the time just tried to go faster. After arriving at the bottom, I wished I had gone with the stand-up boards. So, while others were taking their time coming down, I grabbed one of the boards already at the bottom and proceeded to hike my way halfway back up, to try boarding. This was a good workout – hiking up volcanic skree feels like Sisyphus with his rock – two steps forward, one slide backwards. Repeat.
Anyway, I managed to strap the board on and ride it down. It was good fun, but I do kinda wish I had gone with the crazy daredevils with the faster boards. Ah well, at least this way I still have all my limbs!

At the end, we all looked like we had either really good tans or had taken employment as chimney sweeps. I’m still finding rocks in strange places.

I didn’t manage to get a video, but there are some good ones on YouTube here and here.

Incidentally, this is the very same slope that the world speed record for mountain biking was set on a few years ago: Eric Barone, who broke the world speed record for mountain biking on Nov 4, 2001, tried to break it again by riding down Cerro Negro volcano in Nicaragua. Seconds into his descent, Barone’s $30,000 bicycle snapped in half, hurtling the cyclist down the volcano at 107 MPH! Dramatic video here. Wow, that looks fun! (until the wipe-out)..

Written by in: Nicaragua | Tags: , ,

Feliz Año Nuevo!

After Marissa left (sniff, sniff), I headed up to León, another pretty colonial town. Supposedly, it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. Or maybe that was Granada. Anyway, there are an amazing number of beautiful churches, which look gorgeous in the light here. I don’t know why, but Nicaragua has fantastic sunsets every night. Were I to put these on stage, no one would believe me.

During the ´79 revolution, León was a Sandinista stronghold, due to the presence of so many universities (you know how students can be – always fomenting for change). The town saw a lot of street fighting and atrocious acts by the Contras. As a result, there are a lot of monuments to the Sandinistas.
Which is ironic, because since coming back into power, they have completely betrayed so many of their ideals they once stood for. Daniel Ortega, their legendary leader you will remember from the 80’s when the CIA all but assasinated him, particularly makes my blood boil. For one, he is known to have sexually abused his stepdaughter for nine years. Politically, he once stood for the common person, and in fact made a lot of positive reforms when he was in power in the 80’s – literacy and education went up, poverty went down, in short, the FSLN (Sandinistas) had integrity. Since coming back into power a few years ago, however, they have made a travesty of themselves. They now oppose abortion, even in cases endangering the mother’s life; have instituted widespread censorship, including intimidating journalists; employ totalitarian scare tactics to keep the opposition weak; are inexplicably kicking out non-partisan NGO’s like Oxfam; and even stole the national election two months ago. What happened to the revolutionary hero? Why is he perpetrating the same crimes as were done against him 20 years ago? Is it simply a case of power inherently corrupting?

To give you another glimpse into the concerns here, the headline in the Nica Times today proclaims “Nica aims to be landmine free by ´09“. Several European countries are providing support for the painstaking task of slowly “sapping” (a new term to me) the countryside for mines (mainly near the Honduran border), so that farmers can get their fields back. They’ve disarmed tens of thousands of these things in the last few years alone.

Anyway, back to León. It feels safe here, even at night. Although a bit dead at the moment, since all the students are away on summer break. It is very hot and dry – I need to remember to drink enough water. I’m staying at Lazy Bones, the sister hostel to the one Rissie and I stayed at in Granada. It’s nice – pool, computers with internet, coffee and tea, hammocks, billiards – all included in cheap price. Although I spent one night in a place for half the price that has the most amazing coffee and breakfast (which I keep going back for). They put cinnamon in their coffee which I always love, as well as a pinch of salt – the proprieter says you don’t taste it (true), and it cuts the acidity on the tongue. The walls in the hostel don’t go all the way to the ceiling, so you can hear every whisper and snore of fellow travelers. I’ve overheard some interesting conversations.

On New Year’s Eve, I went to see a band that one of the hostel workers plays in. They were great – mostly local music, with some covers that I knew thrown in. Female vocals, spanish guitar, bass, and bongos. Ended up hanging out with a couple of fellow travelers at the bar, both of whom lived up to their respective country’s stereotypes, I’m sorry to say. The Englishman was loud, obnoxious and drunk, and the Swiss man was friendly but uptight. For the actual stroke of midnight, Swiss and I went down to the Parque Central where most of the town was, for an anti-climactic non-countdown. Nothing… happened. There were a lot of fireworks being confiscated by the police. It was neat, though, to see all the families hanging out, snacking from the vendors, strolling.

I spent a long time beforehand considering what to do with our gift this year, the leap second. In the end, I decided to donate it to charity. What did you do with yours?

On New Year’s Day, the entire town was closed, so I headed to the beach. Another typically overcrowded crazy chicken bus ride for an hour or so. So that’s where the whole town went!. A chaotic scene of vendors grilling meats and everything else for sale, all packed together into one area. I walked a ways down the road and found a more secluded spot. Don’t worry, not too secluded – I know enough to swim near other people, the riptides here can be dangerous. It was perfect surf – just strong enough to have fun getting tossed around by, but not too strong. The water was blissfully warm and surprisingly clean, as was the beach. I had hidden my bag in the courtyard of a closed hotel, and only taken my sandals and sunglasses down to the water. Which some punk kid tried to steal! He saw me see him, and took off running before I could open a can of whoop ass on him.
When I tried to catch the bus back into town, there was a line hundreds of people long. Seriously, it was a mob scene. I’m ashamed to admit that I bucked the line and fudged my way onto the next bus. It was dog eat dog. But kinda cool to experience.
That night back in the town square, I found thousands of people reverently watching some old dudes in white robes blathering on and on.. for 5 hours. Evidently the bishops were giving the town a pep talk for the coming year.

I visited a couple of museums in the last few days, and similar to ones I saw in Honduras, I was the only visitor. The guard would walk ahead of me, turning on lights or the videos, then come along behind me and shut them off as I exited a gallery. The museums, like the chicken buses, are amazingly cheap.

Addresses are given like directions. Instead of “4734 3rd Avenue North”, the addresss would be “3rd Ave North, 100m East of Church Marita, 50m South of Market Zingel, San Jacinto neighborhood.” That’s actually what you write on a letter if you want it to get there.

Written by in: Nicaragua | Tags: , ,

Ohmygod, he’s alive . . .

The first of what I hope will be many guest posts by friends and family who will join me on the road… I am SO happy Rissie came and visited me down here – we had great adventures and laughs. -JJ

So, actual proof that Josh is, in fact, alive and well and has not yet been replaced by a Central American doppelgänger!

Thank god.

After an unexpected night and day spent in Hapesville, Georgia (next to the Atlanta aeropuerto), Josh picked me up at the Managua aeropuerto.  [I had my own adventure just getting there – cab got a flat on the way! Fortunately the driver had a spare, and changed it in seconds flat. -JJ] What a gem.  I was sosososososo happy to see him that I didn’t care one bit (maybe one tiny bit) that my bag never arrived. [Funny moment – Rissie was stuck behind security glass trying to sort this out, so I had the driver tell me the address of the hotel which i typed into the iPhone and held up to the glass for her to copy down to give to the airline.. -JJ] What an excellent opportunity to practice non-attachment to material things, right?  Good thing that Josh let me use his toothbrush, though.  I’m not that Zen.

Instead of spending the night in Managua, we took an extremely fast and moderately crazy taxi directly to Granada.  Our taxi was stopped by the policia for a random check about halfway in between, but let us pass without incident.  Good thing they didn’t check the trunk for all of our cocaine and automatic weapons.  But that did prompt a discussion about how we are both unsure what is the proper situation to try to bribe someone, and how do you know how much?  Like, will $20 get a 9pm table at Balthazar on a Friday night? Or is that laughable?  And if so, how do you give it to the person?  Is there a special fold or something?  If anyone knows, please advise.

Most of the buildings that we’ve seen here are single story and have an open central courtyard (no roof). It’s pretty lovely cause there’s usually lots of lush trees and flowers and grass.  It’s like having an indoor garden! Hostal Oasis, where we stayed in Granada, had such a garden lined with extremely comfortable hammocks.  And I know they’re comfortable cause that one night I locked myself out of the room at 3am and couldn’t wake Josh so had a bit of a snooze in said hammock.

Christmas Eve in Granada was so not Christmas-y.  There was a guy doing a fire dance by the gringo restaurants and lots of kids shooting off fireworks.  Lots and lots of fireworks.  Completely without regard for safety procedures, appropriate distance from tourists to shoot them, or any aethetic value beyond a loud noise.  And like one person in the town had a christmas tree.  To make our own Christmas, we sang lots of carols.  To ourselves.  In the room.  Unfortunately, my Jewish upbringing has stunted my knowledge of Christmas carol lyrics, and Josh may as well be Jewish for how many he knows.  So we kind of kept singing the same phrases over and over again.  But it was extremely entertaining.  For us.  Probably nobody else.

We ran into a few people that Josh had met along the way, and they told us this insane story of VOLCANO SURFING.  You basically hike up a volcano, put on an orange prison suit and goggles, and then get on a tobagon and fly down the side of the volcano.  You go about 10000 mph and possibly die or break a limb or two.  Guess who thinks this is a great idea and plans to do it?  Yeah.  And I told him that he is FORBIDDEN to.

We spent Christmas day checking out Granada, buying me a toothbrush and sandals, and going into some pretty intense churches.  There were lots of life-sized realistic representations of Jesus and Mary and all those other people.  Kind of like in the movie Mannequin.  Super creepy from my naive Western prospective, but I’m sure very holy or something to other people.  We also found this giant old abandoned bombed out hospital / convent.  There were tons of grass and flowers and trees growing inside all the old rooms and buildings. It was pretty beautiful, but then the security guard / possible squatter with a GIANT MACHETE came to tell us that it was dangerous toward the back – either because of robbers or land mines, we weren’t sure which he said.

Robbers in the ground?

Robbers in the ground?

Speaking of, if you combined Josh’s and my Spanish language skills, you would get about 60% of an acceptable level of travel Spanish.  So there’s quite a bit that we miss.  Like, when someone is talking about land mines or robbers.  But I guess we did get the gist that it was dangerous, so three cheers for that.

The other weirdly interesting thing that we came across on Christmas day was a circus called Los Teletubbies, apparently to perform that night.  I don’t think that the Teletubbies that we know and love were actually going to be there, but I could be wrong.  There were lots of kids sitting on the wall around the set up, so we went to check out what they were looking at – a few mangy, depressed looking animals in cages (small leopard, terrified looking monkey, exotic bird of some sort and a couple of ostriches) all being guarded by a little person [Um, midget. Rissie is too PC to say it. -JJ]The irony of animals being guarded by someone half the size of most people was not lost on us.  We also learned the Spanish word for clown – payaso -helpful for many casual conversations.  We did NOT go to the circus that night, as much because of the general creepiness of it as specifically because of the caged animals and the payasos.

Apparently matches are a fairly common toy for children between 2 and 5.  We passed a restaurant with a little girl sitting on the gas stove playing with matches.  It was like a PSA.  But the opposite.

The other reason why Josh and I are very smart together is that we figured out an easy way to tell if a restaurant is for locals – it has fluorescent lighting.  Any warm, incandescent light indicates gringo food (crap veggie burgers and that weird nacho “cheese”) and prices.  But bad lighting is usually a good indicator of a more autentico experience.  Lighting snobs that we are, we geniously worked out that we could eat at a fluorescent lighting place if we could sit outside!

After waiting around all morning in Granada for my bag to show up, we decided to not be slaves to “stuff” and head out to make the bus that would take us to the last ferry to Isle de Omatepe.  The chicken bus is precisely as J has described it in earlier posts, but possibly smellier and sweatier.  We were wedged in the back where some seats had been removed, about 14 of us standing in an area smaller than my bathtub.  As I was pouting and listening to my ipod, some guy called J’s cell phone to say something about my bag.  In very fast complicado spanish.  One of the 14 people in our bathtub offered to help translate.  The less interesting part of the story is that the bag is still not in my possession.  The more interesting part was talking to our translator, this charming Argentinean guy named Rodrigo.  He and his novio Lorena live in Guatemala where he works as a photographer for the AP.  We left that conversation much better informed about Venezuelian politics and hot South American travel spots.

At the ferry dock

At the ferry dock

On the ferry to Omatepe, we managed to sit in the only 2 seats that kept getting splashed.  It was like being at an amusement park on one of those water rides, but like for an hour and a half.  Our brilliant plans for getting to the town of Balgue via cheapo bus were squashed by the setting sun, and we found a taxi that was more than happy to drive us to Finca Magdalena, the coffee farm that we stayed on. Obviously, my perception of “taxi” has been severely limited up until now; in the past, I might expect a taxi to actually drop me off where I was going.  But the road up to Finca Magdalena was so crap that the taxi just stopped in the middle of the road and was all, “Oh I can’t get any further, so you have to get out and walk.”  PS, it’s pitch black out and I’m wearing plastic flip flops.  I’m about 4 seconds from crying, and J is happy as a clam for the opportunity to walk up this terrifyingly rocky road in the middle of the night.  Also, we have no idea how far it is, or if, in fact, it’s really there.  Turns out that it’s not more than a 10 minute walk, and we end up at this fluorescently lit compound that has a cute cabaña just for us! Finca Magdalena was a bit overrated, and not as magnifico as we were expecting, but still pretty nice.  The food was kinda meh, but the grounds were lovely and the porch of our cabin was dope.  Speaking of the porch, J was lounging in the hammock that first night, and as I’m inside, I hear him yelp in surprise.  About 6 inches from his head is a horse.  Just hanging out.  Tied to the cabin.  Excellent marketing, no?  “Private bathroom, mosquito nets, and pet horse all included!!!”

The plan the next morning was to hike halfway up Volcan Madera, to a scenic view that Lonely Planet describes as “The Money Shot”.  We didn’t quite make it that far; it was so muddy and slippery and I inanely hurt my finger and was a big baby about it.  We passed a few fellow hikers on the way, some on their way down covered head to toe in mud and cut up from slipping.  Awesomely, we passed this hippie family on their way up – mom pregnant, dad, and a couple of little kids, all barefoot.  We ALSO saw real live coffee beans on the bush and also saw them spread out on the ground in rows for drying.  That afternoon, we took a walk into the town of Balgue, passing lots of pigs and chickens wandering around.  And a rodeo set up, with the most non-aggressive looking bulls I could ever imagine.  We pass through the town, and on the outskirts come across a tienda renting motorbikes.  (Mom, if you’re reading this, skip down a few paragraphs).  I am reminded of a story of J and Chloë on a motorbike in Panama that wipes out and is a big mess.  I remind J that I don’t have health insurance.  But he is so excited, like a kid in a candy store, so we get the bike.  I hold my breath for about the first 25 minutes of the super duper bumpy helmet-less ride.  But I do finally start to enjoy it . . . we come upon a gringo couple and ask them to take a photo of us.  After about an hour we still haven’t made it to the paved road, and stop to ask someone for directions to the largest town, Altagracia.  Turns out we have no idea where we are, and are definitely not where we planned.  On an island with 3 roads, you would think it wouldn’t be so hard to get lost, but amazingly, we did manage to.  We turn back, and decide to pause for a dip in Lake Nicaragua.  Ran into that same gringo couple at the pier and chatted with them for a bit.  Turns out that the guy went to a rival high school as Josh!  Back on the bike, we have a near-death experience when a seemingly disinterested calf by the side of the road decides to charge at us as we get near.  Can’t tell if she wanted to mate with us, eat us, or just scare the crap out of us.  J handles the bike excellently and we neither crash into the beast nor wipe out.  Pull over, take a few deep breaths.  We then notice the sun getting lower, and realize we should get a move on to be able to return the bike before dark.  15 minutes into our return trip .  .  .

And then the rear tire is flat.  We are on a stretch of “road” with a few houses and apparently no electricity.  There are a bunch of kids playing in the street, and they’re checking us out.  J and I look at each other, helpless.  What do we do with the bike?  What do we do with ourselves?  An older kid from the village says he can help us, that he has a pump for the tire. J is like, ok, can you get it?  And then we look up and we see a little girl already running to us with the tire pump.  The older kid starts pumping and about 15 other kids swarm the bike to help, lifting the bike to help get air in, wanting to get a turn at the pump.  It was awesome.  The air is not helping much, we all realize at the same time, and also learn that the spanish word for “puncture” is very close to the english one.  He pumps it as much as possible, and with heartfelt thanks, we are off as quickly as possible to try to get as far as we can before the tire is flat again.

About 500 meters later, it’s flat.  We coast to a fish restaurant a bit ahead, and the kid there helps us.  No taxi will take us and the bike back to Balgue, and to just take us will cost like $30.  Ugh.  We decide to leave the bike at the fish restaurant in Merida and negotiate for the taxi driver to take us part of the way.  We walk the rest of the way to the bike shop, IN THE DARK ON A SPOOKY ROCKY ROAD FILLED WITH FEROCIOUS WILD DOGS AND GUYS WITH MACHETES.  There is very little car traffic on the road, but lots of bike and horse traffic.  It’s so dark, Josh just about walks right into a trio of mounted horses.  After this, he finally admits that he has a flashlight and begrudgingly agrees to use it – if only to prevent one of us from getting body checked by some more horses.  We do make it back to the bike store guy who, needless to say, is less than pleased that we don’t have the bike with us.  At first he wants Josh to ride with him back to the fish restaurant, the guy would fix it there, and then ride the bike back.  And no.  No no no.  NO WAY was I letting J go off on the scary dark road again, and have to drive that dumb broken bike in the dark and NO WAY IN HELL was I staying there by myself. We gave him a bit more money, and we’re like, Later.  Hiked back to Finca Magdelena and decided that we’d had enough excitement for the night.

The only bus directly to Moyagalpa, the port town, was going to leave at 4:45am the next day.  Awesome.  There was another bus at 8 that went to Altagracia, where we could get a connection to Moyagolpa.  That sounded like the lesser of two evils, but we still couldn’t get it together to leave in time for the 8am.  But on this excellent travel karma day, it turns out that there was a Swedish family about to leave in a taxi to go to the port.  We jumped in the truck with them (incidentally, the same driver who couldn’t drive up the road to drop us off on the first night certainly managed to get up to the farm that morning).  Again, rocking my conception of a “taxi”.  We rode in the back of a pickup truck with a shoddily welded rail around it, and talked for a while with the Swedes.  They live in Managua, and mom works for the embassy.  The oldest daughter, about 19, was a laugh, gave us her opinion on Nica men, living among diplomats, and trying to avoid being seen as a gringo.

The ferry back to mainland was uneventful, and we got to lounge on the top deck.  Calm waters, clear blue skies, sun shining, and the two volcanoes on Omatepe getting smaller and smaller in the distance.  Pretty awesome.  Also, they were playing the video of We Are the World on the boat.  After a cab ride to the town of Rivas, we got another much less crowded bus to San Juan del Sur. SJDS is really fun, kind of like a compact, latino San Diego.  Kids playing on the beach, gorgeous sunsets, pastel houses, thatched roof cafes on the sand.  Lots of surfing and coffee shops.  Ripe, it seems, for a gringo explosion.  We’re staying at a super clean, pretty hotel just a block from the beach.  Went for a bike ride yesterday and found this supa beautiful field with baby horses grazing in the lush wind blown grass.  It was magic hour, that time right before sunset when the light is so warm and pretty and everyone looks young and sexy.  It was like we were in a movie.  After dinner we walked on the beach and saw the crazy bright stars and had just about the best time ever.

We lounged around the room this morning, waiting for the rain to pass.  Once it did, we walked down the beach to a trail up to a lookout point with a giant cross and some sort of statue that we couldn’t quite tell of what.  The trail was less of a trail and more of a road.  But a very very steep road, and with no shade.  The views were stunning, lots of luxury homes perched on cliff sides with lovely landscaping and infinity pools.  The view from the cross was spectacular, I have to say.  Really really postcard perfect.  And the statue was of Jesus (of course), but was in the process of being renovated, so only half of him was up.  The other parts, like a gigantic hand, were laying on the ground.  After we got back to the beach, J convinced me to go for a swim.  Though I may have been a bit crabby about the idea of swimming with no swim suit, the clear turquoise gentle Pacific was way fun.

We got the bus to Managua and saw such a lovely sunset on the way here – orange-y pink fluffy clouds blazed across the sky.  And I did get my bag from the airport!  Mmm, I love clean clothes and toiletries.  And now we’re lounging at an airport hotel while J gets his geek on and downloads about 4 bajillion terrabytes of stuff for his iPhone (didn’t have much luck with the “high speed” internet in SJDS).  And bright and early tomorrow,  I go home. 🙁

You should all come visit Josh.  Cause it’s just about the best vacation ever, even with all of the life-threatening stuff.  But totally stay for longer than a week, cause you need at least a few days to get into the groove of Central America.  Just don’t check your luggage.


Feliz Navidad!

The great thing about carrying everything I need to live on my back is that I can pick up and walk away from an unpleasant situation at any time. I left Managua for Granada today, and I am much happier. Granada is a pretty colonial town, very walkable and approachable. It feels safe, the people are friendly, and there is gringo food.
I figured out transport back to the airport to pick up Rissie tonight, so that’s a relief.

I ran across a Christmas parade tonight (click for video). It was great fun, very casual and relaxed. Kids in nativity costumes, a rag-tag bunch of musicians sloppily playing tunes, a car with bullhorns on top blasting other songs. Donkeys, but no camels 🙁
They ended up at the main church, marched right in (sans animals), and the chaos continued. I love how relaxed and informal it was, not at all serious and religious.

In Latin America, they celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. I’m still surprised, though, how it’s largely business as usual. A lot of shops and restaurants are closed, but a lot are still open.

I probably won’t post much if at all for the next week, as Marissa and I will be tearing up the country together.

I wish you and yours much love this holiday season.

Don't take this as an endorsement of Christianity - it's just a pretty picture!

Written by in: Nicaragua | Tags: , ,

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