Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Finding Solace in Nicaragua: Part 2

Granada was impossibly charming, and it was easy to understand why people often said they got stuck here. The same colonial ambiance that pervaded León was even more present in Granada. The buildings were painted a little crisper, the streets a little cleaner and the whole town was just a few kilometers from Lake Nicaragua and the immense Volcan Mombacho. Granada was much smaller than we expected. At just over 100,000 people it had the small city feel that León lacked. The central park was crammed with food and art vendors and lined with horse carriages waiting to take you on a tour. Just behind the gorgeous yellow cathedral was La Calzada, a pedestrian avenue lined with trees, shops and restaurants with alfresco dining. We spent hours passing up and down the street, taking in the relaxed and artistic atmosphere. It seemed that almost every other shop was an art gallery of some kind boasting original prints and paintings from local artists. We ended up buying two interesting prints on handmade paper that caught our eye, plus a beautiful painted jicaro fruit Christmas ornament. We fell in love with a juice bar that whipped up a calala-naranja (passion fruit-orange) smoothie which we ended up drinking once a day. We also tried some yummy street food including doughy fried balls (possibly made of yuca) with a sweet syrup, tostones con queso (fried crisp plantains with chunks of fried cheese), yuca con cerdo (boiled yuca topped with spicy roasted pork and cabbage salad), and more local juices like granadilla which tasted like cream soda.

Cathedral on the central park
Tostones con queso

We took two wonderful tours while in town. The first was a boat ride visiting the islets in the lake just off the coast. Our guide was a bubbly young man who spoke not only English and Spanish but was also working on his Dutch and Italian to communicate with the thousands of tourists that visit each year. Our fellow tour takers were a pair of older Swiss men on holiday who also spoke six languages combined. We felt glad we had at least two solid languages and a little Italian and had a fun time chatting with everyone in all of them. We motored slowly around the islets, of which there are 365 (one for each day of the year our guide said). Created mostly from volcanic eruptions, the islets are mostly just big enough to fit a luxurious house and little dock, which is what most had. You can buy your own islet and build a house if you wish, something we almost considered doing until realizing the price was a little out of our range. From some islets you could see out across the windy, choppy lake to the dome of the Granada cathedral. Another island featured an old fort, and yet another had a pair of monkeys brought there for protective purposes since they can’t swim off. We stopped at one island which had a restaurant for a drink and our guide explained about local bird life and the ongoing rivalry with León. It was relaxing and calming, the weather breezy and warm.

One of the many personal isletas
Monkey showing off on the Isleta del mono
Then, we decided last minute to sign up for a chocolate making tour which ended up being our favorite part of the trip. Our guide was a rather witty guy from Managua who spoke English, but seemed thrilled that he could give us the tour in Spanish. First, he taught us about the plants. Cacao pods grow on trees in tropical regions around the equator, on trees that can get up to 15 meters. Each tree produces hundreds of pods between September and December and each pod has 20-50 beans. Some pods turn from green to yellow when ripe, but others are always red and no one knows why. The beans are harvested from the pods and fermented in their pulp before being dried and then quickly toasted. We were able to toast our own beans over an open fire and then hand shell them, taking out the warm, chocolatey smelling beans. We ground the beans into a paste called chocolate liquor with a mortar and pestle which really took some arm strength. Surprisingly enough, that was pretty much the whole process – so simple!

Toasting cacao beans
Grinding the beans to make chocolate liquor
We mixed the chocolate liquor with some water and spices and viola, hot cocoa! The Maya were the first to make a cocoa drink and used just cinnamon and some honey for flavoring. The Aztecs later on added other flavorings like chili powder and vanilla which made it tangy. Then the Spanish added milk, giving it that creamy flavor we know today. We tried each kind, preferring the Aztec flavoring the best. Our guide then explained the process of making a chocolate bar. The liquor gets mixed with sugar and blended for several hours to make the chocolate which is simply poured into a mold to cool. The respective ratios of liquor and sugar give the chocolate’s percentage you read on the package, i.e. 70% is 70% liquor and 30% sugar. Tempering makes the chocolate last longer and keeps it shiny, but we didn’t need to go through that process. In the end, we knew all about chocolate from how to select beans and toast them to how to prepare hot cocoa and chocolate bars at home, and we had two homemade bars to show for it. Fabulous!

Making hot cocoa
We spent most of our time just wandering around taking in the beautifully restored buildings, most of which have only been redone in the last 10 years or so. There were kids playing jacks in the street, fountains within every courtyard and, as in León, abundant rocking chairs. We climbed the bell tower of La Merced church to get a view of the cathedral with the lake in the background. We visited the old town train station, wandering through the steam engine and cars in the small but well-restored station that is no longer in use. We finished our trip with a delicious splurge at a restaurant that caught my eye, Imagine. The owner/chef was from New Mexico and had some delicious fusion dishes made with local ingredients. We enjoyed a bottle of Carmenere, pork tacos and chicken enchiladas surrounded by art in homage to John Lennon, perfect!

Just be careful that you don't rock yourself off the edge
Us with the cathedral in the background
Old steam engine at the train station
Imagine all the people, living life in peace...
We savored our last relaxing moments in Granada, enchanted by the people, food, scenery and architecture that never failed to impress us. Even our early morning taxi ride into Managua to catch the bus home was fascinating, our driver yammering on about local political issues, his family and his views on Costa Rica. We left Nicaragua feeling lucky (and a little guilty) that we were able to take our vacation and escape Honduras for a few days and a little sad that our week of sunshine and solace had to come to an end.

Enjoying our time in Nica before heading home to pack up and leave...

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Finding Solace in Nicaragua: Part 1

First stop, León, the ex-capital city and Nicaragua’s center of education, culture and liberalism. We were pleasantly surprised by the temperature, not too hot, not too humid; quite different than the inferno we believed awaited us. It was the first of many things that would pleasantly surprise us about both León and Nicaragua. We spent our two days there taking in the grinding urban vibe of the city of around 200,000 residents. It had a lovely colonial atmosphere with brightly painted and well-maintained buildings, complemented by ornate churches on every other corner. We reveled in the dust-free paved streets, watching “buses” fly by that were little more than a covered truck bed lined with poles and seats with travelers hopping on and off like a San Francisco street car. The city hub was of course the central park, bordered on one side by the magnificent cathedral, the largest in Central America and second largest in Latin America. The other three sides were the municipal office, a seminary and the old president’s residence, varying in styles from gaudy gothic to austere art deco. The park was abuzz with artisan vendors, snack kiosks and cell phone hawkers.

Cathedral from the top of the old president's residence
Nicaraguan "buses" - hop on if you can
We visited all the key museums in town, learning a great deal about Leon’s defining people and events. First was the home of famed Nicaraguan poet and dignitary, Ruben Darío, who was raised by an aunt-like figure in the late 1800’s and died young of stomach ailments. We read amusing poems in his own hand, and gazed over his clothing and deathbed. In addition to writing some of the most nationalistic poetry in homage to his homeland, he also was an ambassador to several countries, garnering him respect and wealth that have lived on to this day. You can scarcely walk two blocks without seeing a street, building, school, statue, mural, or event named in his honor. One block from Darío’s home was a wonderful art museum housed in two separate haciendas across the street from each other. The museum, which only cost $1 to enter,  had everything from European religious art to some Picasso and Braque etchings plus tons of more modern art from artists in Central America. Our favorite was a long painting showing the geography of the area from León to Granada with the city grids marked out in opalescent squares next to bright blue lakes and rivers.

Tomb of Darío guarded by a lion, symbol of León
Next, we visited the museum of the revolution in the old presidential mansion, where a veteran guided us through a series of moving photographs, telling us the story of his country’s harrowing history. Nicaraguans, led by a caballero named Sandino, were some of the first to challenge the U.S. imperialistic intervention in Latin America leading to battles in the early 1900’s. From there, the U.S. imposed a dictator who ruled for decades before being assassinated in León, setting off several more decades of guerilla style warfare in the streets pitting revolutionaries (the FSLN) against the national army. Our veteran guide had joined the revolutionaries as a 14 year old boy, and luckily lived to see the end of fighting as the liberals gained control of the country. The fighting though left many in León with physical and emotional scars, but instilled a very strong sense of pride in their region, city and liberal party, which still is largely based in León today. To end our tour, our guide led us up a creaky staircase to the roof of the building so that we could see out over the central park and cathedral and beyond to the circle of volcanoes that surround the city in the distance, a truly beautiful sight. Our lasting image of the museum was a postcard of a young woman revolutionary marching with an assault rifle slung over her shoulder, simultaneously breastfeeding a child in her arms – this is what the people of León are like.

We then headed to a museum of folklore and tradition housed in an old prison. There, we read interesting short stories about the ghouls and ghosts of Nicaraguan culture. There is the witch pig, a representation of the angry or cheated woman who turns into a pig and attacks men; the cryer, a woman who cries constantly for the loss of her child; the high heeled woman who tracks down abusive men and embarrasses them in public; the headless priest, roaming the streets at night and other such creatures used to scare children into an early bedtime. The prison itself was painted with torture scenes to recreate the horrors that occurred there, but actually the place was quite tranquil with a fountain, mosaic murals and lovely drooping mango trees.

Mosaic depicting a death carriage march
León is home to the oldest university in the country, which is still functioning today, glowing at night with colored lights. The city is famous for its murals depicting local history and happenings such as the army fighting students in the streets and martyrs who died in the revolutionary cause. Another thing we noticed that was strikingly different from Honduras was the nighttime social culture. Around sunset, people pulled rocking chairs from their living rooms onto their front stoops and slowly rocked, chatted and watched the street life late into the night, the heat driving them outdoors.

Mural of the army attacking students during the revolution
Nolan modelling chicha morada (a fermented purple corn drink) 
Perhaps the best thing we did was attend a baseball game at the local stadium. Nicaraguans love baseball and have four teams across the country that compete in the national league from September to January. At just $3 for a home plate seat with a view right down the third base line, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to get a real sense of the baseball culture. The stadium was small, but packed by the time the first inning was underway. The lights shone brightly on the field as the smell of beer and hot dogs wafted around us in the pleasantly cool evening. To be watching baseball in January was a treat, and it felt so familiar to us; families with kids, old men, guys out with their friends, all enjoying their team, which unfortunately is last in the league. We couldn’t understand the announcer or most of the jeers, but a few we caught that sounded the same, “Batter, you need glasses!” “He was out!” They use an interesting mix of Spanish and English terms, strike and out in English, but run is correo and ball is bola. The ball boy was actually a 40 year old man, and the balls were obviously reused unlike in the U.S. Balls hit foul over the seats were tracked down outside the stadium by another guy and brought back into the game. There was no 7th inning stretch and singing. León ended up losing the game 3-2, but we had a great time anyway.

Juego de beisbol
Our other fun outing was a tour to León Viejo, the old city originally founded by the Spanish in 1524 about 45 minutes from the current location. They had selected the original locale for its proximity to a lake, but it was also next to a major volcano, Momotombo, so after a few tremors and flooding devastated the settlers and their resources ran out, they moved the city in 1610. All that remains are some building foundations of houses and the churches and convents, but the views are tremendous and our guide was very good at recreating the scene. Of course the story is the same as many conquistadors, bloody confrontations with the natives whom they enslaved, harsh rule of Spanish commanders and lack of local knowledge made life tough. During the tour we stopped at a small restaurant to try some local fare, quesillo. Quesillo normally refers to a soft, bland mozzarella-esque cheese common in Central America, but in Nicaragua it also refers to a snack, a corn tortilla covered with a round sheet of quesillo cheese, topped with salt, creamy whey, and pickled onions rolled up and stuck in a bag. It sounds really strange and honestly looks really strange, but it tastes pretty darn good. Even Nolan ate it! We washed it down with a local drink, semilla con leche, ground up dried seeds of the jicaro tree mixed with milk and ice that sort of tastes like chocolate milk with some spices. Tasty!

View from León Viejo of Volcán Momotombo
Making quesillo
Jicaro tree
Our very intelligent guide shared some great information with us about Nica. They grow things like cotton, wheat and peanuts around León because they have the open farmland and to avoid importing such items. They also grow copious amounts of sugar cane, caña, to make the famous rum Flor de Caña, named for the flower of the plant.  Although people from León may have felt a little gypped at having the capital stripped from them and moved to Managua, our guide seemed to think it was for the best since the unbridled growth and industry in Managua has caused nothing but environmental and social problems while León has kept is character intact.

Our guide stressed that relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica are not so great. He claimed that Costa Ricans didn’t like Nicaraguans or other Central Americans and often hassled people at customs. There is also a big conflict going on where the Costa Ricans are supporting construction of a road along the border that is causing environmental degradation while Nicaraguans oppose the reckless construction methods. Ironic since Costa Rica portrays itself as the ultimate eco-destination. Our guide explained he was disenchanted with the lifestyle of the U.S. where work was the primary focus and life was not as tranquil as in Nica. He said that we as PC volunteers were living the true American dream, having the opportunity to travel the world, but always be able to go back home to the U.S. Our other tour companions, a French teacher from Mexico and a Dutch computer chip manufacturer seemed to agree that their lives with ample vacation were more desirable than the American way of life. It was interesting to hear all these perspectives, both regarding Nicaragua and their ideas about the U.S.

It seemed like around every corner in Leon we found more interesting tidbits about its history and character and encountered friendly, intelligent and warm people who were willing to open up to us about their culture. Perhaps because the pace of this vacation was a little slower, we were able to more fully enjoy what we were seeing and reflect on the significance of subtle details. After two long days, we headed out of León for Granada, imagining what other simple pleasures we might find there.