Monthly Archives: February 2015

Onward and northward

We’ve said our farewells to Leon. Here are a few more photos of our time there:


View from the cathedral roof

View from the cathedral roof

Parque Central

Parque Central


Huge hole in the sidewalk.  These were everywhere and presumably designed to cripple unwary tourists.

Huge hole in the sidewalk. These were everywhere and presumably designed to cripple unwary tourists.










This pretty much captures it perfectly.

This pretty much captures it perfectly.  Note the torture scenes.

It was a lovely city and a good stop, but a day or so there proved to be enough to cover the attractions that we thought would be family-friendly. (Although, in the case of the Museum of Myths and Legends, we proved to be somewhat mistaken in this view. All I can say is that it was probably the most bizarre tourist attraction I’ve ever visited (even including a museum that I once found myself in somewhere in Eastern Europe that had, if memory serves, various potatoes in the shapes of famous people). The museum was originally intended to showcase the myths and legends of Nicaragua, via various plastic and paper-mache figures set in rather corny displays — but is located in an old prison that was used by the Somoza dictatorship prior to the Sandinista revolution. So the cheesy-looking figures are juxtaposed with murals and sculptures depicting prison scenes and people being tortured. Also, the “myths and legends” seemed to uniformly involve people being killed/committing suicide and then coming back as ghosts. Our guide spoke English, for better or for worse, but seemed much one of those toys where you pull a string on a talking doll: he launched into a well-rehearsed spiel in front of each exhibit, not pausing for breath until the speech was completed (or the string ran out). Bob was sufficiently traumatized that he refuses to discuss the place, and we were surprised that Lanie wasn’t up with nightmares. You can tell the depth of Bob’s feelings based on the fact that his favorite part was at the end where we got to walk along the top of the prison’s walls, with dizzying drops on each side and extremely inadequate hand rails.)

At least the courtyard was nice.

At least the courtyard was nice.


Our hotel room

Our hotel room

Our hotel was genuinely lovely, though, with our room looking out on a beautiful walled courtyard filled with winding paths and greenery — a quiet retreat in the middle of the city. We suffered a bit from the lack of air conditioning, though. Now that we’ve left the mountains for the coast, it’s HOT here. (Note to northeastern friends: No, no, we are not complaining!)

We had lots of interesting converations with the owner, who’s from Queens. He built the hotel himself and spends most of his days volunteering in the poorest neighborhoods, building homes and sporting fields and providing food. He raised two kids in Long Island and is now raising two down here with his Nicaraguan wife, so he’s got a very interesting perspective on the two societies. He feels that his US kids learned more in school, but his kids down here have learned to be kinder and happier.

IMG_6861Today we were planning to hit the buses again, but were a bit daunted when we discovered what getting to our next destination would involve: a taxi to the bus station, a bus ride to Chinandega, a taxi ride to a different bus station (all the small towns here have this maddening habit of having multiple bus terminals scattered through the city), and then another bus ride to our hostel. When I read online that our hostel offered shuttle service for $40, we quickly opted to try to set that up (despite the 4-person maximum). Luckily we were able to work it out, so we got door-to-door taxi service from a very nice man, Lanie perched on my lap in the back seat and our many bags totally filling the hatchback. The ride seemed like it was going to be much shorter than we’d expected — until we got to the last 7 km and turned off onto an extremely rutted dirt road. Half an hour later, we finally arrived. Best $40 we’ve ever spent.

IMG_6877And now we’re ensconced at the Rancho Esperanza, right on the beach in the remote northwestern corner of Nicaragua. It’s essentially a collection of rough thatched-roof shacks on the sand with a hippie/surfer vibe. We rented out a six-person dorm (three sets of bunk beds). We have composting toilets and cold showers, and are surrounded by college-aged people. (One group is currently playing a drinking game the next table over, and another is sitting outside playing the guitar and singing). The beach is beautiful and mostly deserted, and the water is like a bath. We swam for hours today, then lounged in beachfront hammocks with our books, watching a breathtaking sunset. Bob and I signed up for the delicious vegetarian curry dinner, and the kids were thrilled with the “breakfast all day” menu item of waffles (Eggo, by the looks of it) and fruit.

IMG_6868We’re here for five days and it looks like we’ll have plenty to do — surfing lessons, “climb a coconut tree” lessons, kayaking in the adjacent wetland reserve, getting a $2 manicure or $10 massage, maybe helping out in the kids’ club that they run for the local families here. So far, well worth the trip.

Flying from the nest

To all of our friends at the Mariposa school who saw us off yesterday, particularly to Helen and Rodney, who walked us to the bus stop and helped us carry our things, and who witnessed the dramatic swooping u-turn executed by the microbus to UCA, the rapid loading of our family and posessions, and the hasty departure toward Managua, we’d like to say that we’ve made it to Leon. Thank you for your support.


Plenty of space on the Microbus

The travel was actually quite comfortable and efficient. The frist microbus didn’t stop often, but it did roll to an almost stop frequently while the man with the pot-leaf baseball cap whistled and yelled out the window to potential passengers. Even when people were getting on and off, the bus frequently kept its forward progress. We paid of an extra space for our backpacks — and luckIly there was space in this van for us and our stuff. We only had to wait at the bus stop five minutes!

The porter on the bus was effective at drumming up business — there was standing room only for much of the trip — and he was honest and efficient in giving us our change. (I was not entirely sure how this would work out because he waited until almost the end of the trip to collect from us and never actaully told us what the fare was. I noticed that almost everyone else paid with 20-cordova notes and got a pair of one-cordova coins back. We would need seis por diez y ocho. I gave him 150 cordobas and he took pretty great care, given he was half-way hanging out a van door, to get me correct change.

It is also probable that he gave me good directions to the terminal of the Leon bus. A few weeks of practice with our patient teachers La Mariposa did not really prepare me to understand this guy, though. To his great credit, he did give us a few sentences of direction before hoping back on the already-departing microbus. It turned out to be not too hard to get to the Leon bus. (Cost for traveling from San Juan de la Concepcion to Managua – UCA: 108 $C; time of travel, 12:30 pm – 1:25 pm.)*

The Leon bus was palatial in comparison. It was about half again as big as the first microbus, and it had room for luggage. As it happened, we still ended up with backpacks in the aisle because our big bags took up most of the storage space and there were a couple of seemingly European tourists on the bus who had all of their possessions with them as well. All the people on the bus got seats, though, only back packs were in the aisle.

As this bus was a little more comfortable — it had air conditioning! — and the trip was a little longer, the cost was a little higher — 51 $C per person. The best part was the we avoided waiting again. They squeezed our bags in, ushered us to seats, dealt with my ineptitude in with practicing Spanish and math simultaneously (for this bus, you pay before the bus leaves the terminal), and pulled out within 20 minutes of our exit from the Concepcion – Managua bus. We didn’t even have time to takea picture of the terminal, which was a chaotic sprawl of shed-like garages peppered with people trying to sell food to travelers. I don’t think we can hope for such timing for the rest of our bus journeys across Nicaragua. (Cost for travel from Managua to Leon: 51 cordovas times five people 255 $C, plus 20 $C tip; time of travel: 1:40 pm – 4:15 pm.)*

From there it was smooth sailing. Not a lot of stops. Good roads. We were met in the Leon parking lot/ bus depot by a swarm of bike taxis and allowed ourselves and our baggage to be swept up by two of them. It turned out to be a pleasant, if expensive, way to get to our hotel, passing a few open air markets and lot of Leonites. It’s hot here and our bike taxi operators were moving a lot of weight. They probably deserved the 100-cordova tip that they helped themselves to. (Cost of getting from the bus depot to our hotel: 300 $C, including tip; time: 4:20 – 4:30.)*


Our hotel room has a beautiful front window.

Then, there we were, having completed our own multi-stage trip on Nicaraguan public transportation. The hotel is beautiful; the city is vibrant, and almost pretty after dark. We have pounded the pavement in typical Pavlik vacation style (Jen’s fitbit buzzed in the early afternoon today and we still had plenty of walking to go). On advice from a fellow hotel guest who’s been to Leon a few times, we walked for an hour in search of “Pizzaria Lebano.” After much searching and a few inquiries we found “Hotel Lebano” and were told that they got out of the pizza business and into the hotel business about six years ago.

Looking for pizza on the streets of Leon

Looking for pizza on the streets of Leon

Jen had read that Leon is a good city for pizza and the kids were excited for the change from beans, rice and beets. Plan B was Hollywood Pizza, just around the corner from our hotel. It is about as American as it gets, with pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe on the wall. But even with the pizza and pictures, it didn’t really feel like home until I visited the bathroom, which is shared by a neighboring cineplex. No matter where I am, the smell of popcorn and artificial butter substitute food product will always bring me back to the USA.

Its so white up there  that I had to adjust the camera.

Its so white up there that I had to adjust the camera.

Today we roamed the town some more in the morning, sipping juice in a high-end hotel that used to be a convent and climbing to the top of the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion. It’s the biggest cathedral in Central America and its roof is amazing to behold.  Unlike other trips up bell towers, the view from this site is a secondary attraction.  The roof itself is very elaborate, and the most striking feature is its utter whiteness.

Thats more like it.

Thats more like it.

Juices at the hotel/former convent, with thanks to Helen for the suggestion.

Juices at the hotel/former convent, with thanks to Helen for the suggestion.

Of course, it must be white to reflect the sun and keep the cathedral manageably cool, but the effect is stunning. The paint is pristine and completely devoid of any pigment. To walk on it, you have to take off your shoes (and you really should wear sunglasses). The surface seems much better tended than any other part of the cathedral’s exterior — or any other part of Leon, for that matter. The whitewashing is completely flawless, unlike the nearby Mausoleum of Heroes and Martyrs, which is derelect in comparison to the cathedral roof. It has to be the coolest roof in Central America. Our feet didn’t even get hot when we walked on it. That roof is amazing.

The uv wand got a workout today.

The UV wand got a workout today.

Back on ground level we worked on some school stuff, explored the extensive courtyard encompassed by our hotel, and recreated the famous Roman Lunch from our Italy trip. It is very hot here, and we drank lots of water.  Our life straw water bottle and magic want UV water purifier saw lots of action.  Truthfully, we don’t know if we can drink the water, but we’re trying to be safe.

At the supermarket

At the supermarket

We also visited a supermarket and survived an ATM scare that threatened to eat our afternoon with us desperately contacting our debit card company.  It’s ok if only one bank in the country lets us use our ATM card, as long as that bank has plenty of branches. We need you, Bank of Nicaragua.


Historic reenactment of our Roman Lunch, this time in the courtyard

In the evening there was a trip to a museum of folklore that Jen can describe to you if she’d like. I’d much sooner not have to think about that place ever again. I wish I could expunge it completely from this blog and my mind, but this duty requires as many facts as I can muster.  I am hoping there isn’t too much scaring among our younger charges.  On the upside, Nadia found a nail clipper/bottle opener for 60 $C * that fits nicely in her collection.

Another one for the collection

Another one for the collection

Then, also on a lucky note, dinner was good enough to wipe out most of the evening’s earlier activities. Muchas gracias to the Nicaraguita Cafe. Eat here, everybody, when you’re in Leon. Our kids sure ate plenty.

We meet again, pasta and cheese.

We meet again, pasta and cheese.

Finally, I haven’t had the time to read Jen’s post about our trip to the volcano earlier this week, but I would like to say that I dedicate my accomplishments on that day to our Mariposa friends Melanie, Seker, and Bob from Wisconsin, who had the misfortune to leave the school before this particular outing took place, and whose self-organized expedition met with failure before the summit due to area wildfires. It was a beautiful trip, guys. Hope you have the chance to make it to the Masaya crater some time.

* Current exchange rate is around 27 cordovas to the dollar.

It doesn’t get better than this

P1000354 We have officially left La Mariposa and successfully launched into the outside world.  More about that tomorrow.  But yesterday, on our last night, was the excursion I was most looking forward to — a night tour of the Volcan Masaya.  Despite my high expectations, this trip still blew them all away.P1000286

Volcan Masaya is a national park, but down here that doesn’t mean the same thing as it does at home.  However, in this case we found that Nicaragua has really done a good job with this place.  Our first stop was the visitor center/museum, which was the equal of any I’ve been in in the US national parks — large scale models of the area, lots of interesting information about the volcano and the plants and animals that live here, and beautiful artwork.

P1000292 P1000291

P1000287But of course the real star is the volcano itself.  It has seven craters, of which only one (the Santiago crater) is still active.  And I read that this is one of only two places in the world where you can drive right up to the crater’s edge and peer into the depths, until you’re blinded and/or asphyxiated by the acrid smoke pouring from it.  Cars are instructed to park facing out, so a quick getaway is possible in case of an eruption, and people are advised to stay in the area for no more than 20 minutes, because of the fumes.  (Interestingly, a group of parrots has evolved to live inside the crater itself, undisturbed by any predators.)

P1000315 IMG_6720

IMG_6704We were able to hike around and even a little bit into the crater, and along a ridge that passed by two adjacent (inactive) craters.  Next we headed up to the highest point in the park, along a steep path covered in loose gravel.  (We thought getting up it was hard, but it was nothing to trying to get back down.)  The view would have been spectacular in any circumstances — from a narrow ridgeline, we could see for miles in every direction, chains of volcanoes and green valleys stretching to the horizon — but Richard had timed our trip so that we could watch the sun setting through the smoke of the crater.  Words and photos don’t do it justice.

A short panorama view:

Up, up, up the hill

Up, up, up the hill

As if that wasn’t enough, we were then equipped with helmets and flashlights and led to the nearby caves.  These are actually lava tubes, formed by rivers of hot lava coursing through the mountain.  We stood just outside the first cave (all three girls in front of the pack), turned off our lights…and watched some of the cave’s thousands of bats emerge in droves for their evening hunting. I must admit I ducked into a crouch (and was grateful for my helmet, lest a bat crash into/poop on me), but looking up I could see the bats coursing all around Bob’s head.  (Our guide helpfully explained that these are not vampire bats, but insectivores.)

The bats emerge:

IMG_6732Finally, Richard had one more treat in store — we walked along a bit to another cave, where we were able to walk about a third of a mile into the mountain.  The cave formations were lovely, and there were plenty of bats here, too.  At one point, in the deepest depths of the cave (where indigenous tribes once prepared their victims for human sacrifice in the volcano) Richard had everyone turn off their lights and be totally silent.  I don’t think we’ve ever experienced such darkness before, with no sensory input except the soft flutter of bats’ wings.  (I ducked down at this point as well.)

Creepy looking things, arent they?

Creepy looking things, aren’t they?


Our tour ended, we emerged under a blanket of stars brighter than I ever remember seeing.  There’s not much light pollution in Nicaragua.

This place alone is reason enough to come to Nicaragua, in my opinion.  Any one of our experiences would have made the trip worthwhile.  This would be an A-1 tourist destination anywhere in the world, but down here is still enough off the beaten path that we didn’t have to deal with crowds or the excessive levels of regulation that unfortunately must accompany them.  And the whole experience was $10 per person.  We won’t soon forget it.


What happens when you stay home

Here’s what happens when you don’t go on an expedition. Not all of us really needed to be out until 10 pm Thursday. The Spanish classses are fun but mentally taxing, and the need to fit in other academic stuff is pressing. Here is that day’s entry for the girls’ home-school journal:

Thurs., Feb. 19
Zoe: four hours Spanish instruction; daily math homework (percentages); trip to Masaya market
Nadia: four hours Spanish instruction; red math’s mate, math problem of the week, mystery book reading, journal entry on pinatas (started)
Lanie: four hours Spanish instruction; page of homework packet #16; math sheet (addition and subtraction); journal entry on pinatas (started); book group, Vacation Under the Volcano, chapters 1 and 2; violin performance for dinner crowd; journal entry (picture) on La Laguna de Apoyo.

Lanie was particularly busy, considering she also fit in a shower and was the very first person down for dinner (beets featured prominently again; beets are on the list of new Spanish words I’ve learned — remolachas). The girls managed to scrape together enough of a meal and hold on for dessert, which was bread pudding. None of them could get behind the rice pudding they were served the other day, and even the banana cream pie met a mixed reception, but bread pudding was very popular tonight.

Spending the evening at the school also gave us the opportunity to play a round of Horse Show, the card game Nadia got for Christmas. Lanie spent some time on her new hobby, building card castles.  We skyped the Zamanskys around dinner time to preserve some semblance of Potluck. We read a bit of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the girls were in bed by 8. We sleep an awful lot here. I waited up for the other two and thankfully they were not out much past 10. I wrote my Spanish paragraph and reviewed my notes from that day, then got a start on the next few chapters of Vacation Under the Volcano.

Life in Nicaragua

P1000257We’ve been in a bit of a cocoon during our stay at La Mariposa, but during our various excursions (on foot and by van) we’ve seen a little of the country as well.  It’ll be interesting to see how similar the other regions are to this one.

Schoolwork with a view

Schoolwork with a view

One thing you notice right away is the weather.  I thought that the whole Northern Hemisphere would share the same seasons, but February is considered summer down here.  It’s the dry season, which means almost no rain.  As a result, there is dust everywhere.  All of our walks have resulted in very dirty feet, and Lanie (due to her constant contact with dogs and with the ground) pretty much walks around in a cloud of dirt, like Pigpen from Peanuts.  (Fortunately the flies have not yet appeared.)  When I wash my hands before dinner, I’m always surprised at the brown water coming off them, even if I haven’t been doing much of anything.

Compounding the dirt is the shortage of water here.  The dry season is always a challenge, and climate change has made things worse.  Although we have a free-flowing supply of water in our bathroom, we’re asked to conserve as much as possible.  We know we’re in a place where a lack of water can lead directly to families going hungry, so we have been minimizing our water usage as much as possible — which means brief and infrequent showers.  “Clean” is relative here, when it comes to us and our clothes.IMG_6487

This monkey really wants to bite my finger off.

This monkey really wants to bite my finger off.

The region where we’re staying is mountainous and mostly rural, with occasional villages dotted along the roads.  These are filled with various storefronts, as it seems that most people are selling something from their homes to produce or supplement their incomes.  For instance, one home in the nearest village has four TVs with video-game consoles in the main room, and these are rented by the hour to the local kids.

Some of the shells we found at the beach.

Some of the shells we found at the beach.

Most of the houses outside the village center seem to have animals in their yards — bulls and cows, chickens, pigs.  And dogs are ubiquitous.  Most of them are running free through the town, so it’s fortunate that they generally seem to be well-behaved.  Life is mostly lived outside, at least in the summer.  Cooking, laundry, and lounging are all done in the outdoors.

IMG_6662We’re very happy with our decision to avoid renting a car here.  The roads are narrow, vary widely in quality, and have random speed bumps in the middle of towns.  People seem to drive as fast as they can, tooting the horn and weaving in and out amongst pedestrians, bicycles, the three-wheeled motor taxis, and livestock.  And they have a very different idea of the maximum carrying capacity of a vehicle.  The other day on our trip to the beach, the van filled up and so the driver put stools into the aisle for people to sit on.  Others perched on a ledge behind the driver’s seat, facing backwards.  I’ve heard that the buses are even worse (I guess we’ll find out on Wednesday).  In Masaya the other night, I saw a whole family — mother, father, young child, and infant — riding a single bicycle.

A walk through the hills behind La Mariposa

A walk through the hills behind La Mariposa

Though many of the houses here would barely qualify as shacks at home, we haven’t noticed a great deal of extreme poverty (or extreme wealth, for that matter).  La Mariposa is essentially a non-profit and donates a lot of goods and labor (as well as providing jobs) for the local community, so that may be making a difference here.  It’s inspiring to see the many young guides we’ve had at various locations, who are so enthusiastic and well-versed in the area’s flora, fauna, and history.

The smoking crater of Volcan Masaya,

The smoking crater of Volcan Masaya, as seen from the top of the hill at La Mariposa.

Our first national park


The rock walls had several political paintings.  This was an active area for the Sandinista rebellion and there are still strong loyalties.

The rock walls had several political paintings. This was an active area for the Sandinista rebellion and there are still strong loyalties.

Yesterday was Sunday, when we traditionally have a choice between a guided hike and a horseback ride.  Nadia and Lanie really wanted to ride again, so Bob took the hit and went with them while Zoe and I went on the hike.

We weren’t sure exactly what it would entail, but we met up with our guides (and a translator from La Mariposa) and headed a couple of villages over.  We found ourselves walking down a steep track that had been blasted out of the sheer rock that rose on our right, with a steep drop into a valley on our left.  It turned out that we descending inside one of the (inactive) craters of the Volcan Masaya.  (We learned that it has seven craters, only one of which is active.  That’s the one we see smoking in the distance whenever we drive or walk anywhere.)  In the distance was a beautiful lake, the Laguna Masaya.

We got to ride in the back of the pickup!

We got to ride in the back of the pickup!

Laguna Masaya in the background

Laguna Masaya in the background

Eventually we came to a sign saying we were entering the Volcan Masaya National Park.  Not exactly like what you’d see at a US National Park — there was no entrance kiosk, no rangers, no parking lot — just a dusty track continuing down the trail.  It wasn’t totally clear what the boundaries of the park were, but even after we passed the sign we saw a man tending bulls, pockets of agriculture, a tiny two-room school (that holds the village’s 14 children) and the ruins of an old house near the lakeshore (that had apparently been built by someone who was president of Nicaragua for three days).  There were no other tourists that we could see, just a few Nicaraguans working, fishing, or doing their laundry.  (We’ll be visiting the more-touristed Santiago crater for a night hike tomorrow.)

After this the short-lived president’s mysterious departure, the house was bought by a German who lived there until the 90s.  He set up a zoo on the premises.  We saw the remains of a large round enclosure

Inadequate crocodile enclosure

Inadequate crocodile enclosure

near the lake, and were told that it used to hold his crocodiles.  However, one day in the rainy season the lake flooded, and you can guess what happened.  And so to this day, there is a small colony of crocodiles that lives in the lake.

We were also brought, in groups of five, into the “bat house” — the crumbling remains of the oldest house in the village, which now houses a colony of bats.  They were flying around much more than I expected, but luckily none of them came too close.  (Many of you have heard my traumatic bat-in-the-bedroom story and I’m still not fully recovered.)

A fisherman shows us his catch

A fisherman shows us his catch

A scenic spot for laundry

A scenic spot for laundry

We walked a fair way around the lakeshore, with our guides pointing out various birds, trees, and other natural features.  It was incredibly beautiful, though sadly rimmed with trash.  Trash is a big problem here.  Much of it is burned, but you see it everywhere.  The city of Masaya is on the far side of the lake, and when Zoe and I were there we saw drainage canals (dry at this time of year) full of trash.  When the rains come, it will all be washed into the laguna.  So this was not a place for swimming (though we did see a couple of Nicaraguans in it).

Bob finally gets his turn at the pinata.

Bob finally gets his turn at the pinata.  The dancing ladies would have been proud.

This afternoon we split up again.  Bob walked up the steep hill to the village of La Concha to try to catch a baseball game.  The rest of us worked on schoolwork and then treated ourselves to ice cream in the village of San Juan (downhill).  We also got some more candy for the final pinata, which we dispatched (unfortunately without the festive music) when we got back.

Bob and I spent some time post-dinner down on the terrace having a drink with several of the other guests, in honor of our friend Sekar from San Francisco who’s leaving tomorrow (but were still in bed by 9:30).  Back to class tomorrow morning!

Crew at La Mariposa.  There's a real diversity here -- people young and old, from various countries of origin.

Crew at La Mariposa. There’s a real diversity here — people young and old, from various countries of origin.

A day at the beach

Yesterday I was compelled by my grammar teacher to ask a few of the staff members three questions. This being an exercise in using the subjunctive case, and since it was Friday, one of the questions was: “What do you prefer you students do over the weekend?”

The two teachers I asked said their students should take it easy and relax over the weekend, but the head of the school gave me an earnest and in-depth treatise that started with phrases like “have fun” but wound around through hours or study and asking ten questions of any Spanish speaker you can find.

P1000156While I appreciate and respect the opinion of Senor Marlin, head of the Mariposa school faculty, I think I kept closer to the advice of the two teachers.

Today we went to La Boquita, a beach about an hour away from the school. We set up camp in one of the restaurants on the beach, then hit the waves. The Pacific was warm and wavy today. We spent hours in the water.

P1000201We also ate a lunch so expensive that we had to clean out Lanie’s wallet to help pay for it. Even though $54 is very steep for these parts, even for a family of five, the restaurant did not charge us for access to the beach or for use of the tables and hammocks. So that factors in. The food was good, too, if not exactly what we thought we ordered. (These days the mere presence of meat earns a meal a few extra stars, but Zoe’s bisteca smothered in onions was truly very excellent.)


Jen and Nadia with their carne asada?


Nope, this is the carne asada. The other stuff was the tostones the waiter thought Lanie and I ordered.

And just in case Senor Marlin ever finds our blog, I did converse with several Spanish speakers today, including our waiter, the night watchman at the school, and today’s driver Jose. Thankfully, it’s all about the trying, because I had varying levels of success (take, for example the fact that I thought I was ordering torta con carne and instead Lanie and I got carne and queso con tostones). I did manage to coax Jose into the water — he was on the fence about swimming. Actually, it might have been the five or six international college coeds on our excursion who had more to do with Jose going into the water. He swam more with them than me.

Here is what I learned from talking to Jose:P1000163

  • Like many people here, he says he would like the experience the cold of a North American winter some day. (Given that he thought the water was cold today, I don’t know how well he’d hold up.)
  • He learned to drive when he was 15, and he started with a motor taxi, which is rather like a cross between a moped and a Winnebago, of you can picture that. I’ll try to get a photo of one, but I don’t expect we’ll ride one.
  • He has a son and a daughter, aged 2 and 4 months, whom he helps care for when he gets home from work.
  • He drives or he used to drive a bus route between La Concepcion and Managua.
  • Even though the owner of the Mariposa School says he doesn’t have to, Jose takes great care in cleaning the microbuses. While we were swimming today — except for the time he himself was coxed into the waves — Jose was detailing the bus, inside and out. I shudder to think about all the sand we brought into the van he’d just cleaned.

Life at La Mariposa

IMG_6334We’ve settled into a nice routine here at La Mariposa.  It’s been an extremely easy way to get our feet wet in Central America, since all our needs are taken care of and we pretty much just have to show up.

The food here is great, and this is probably the healthiest we’ve ever eaten.  Lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and (of course) beans and rice.  The other thing Bob and I are noticing is we aren’t snacking, and we aren’t missing it.  Out of sight is out of mind when it comes to junk food, and this confirms that most of our snacking is probably due to cravings or boredom rather than actual hunger.  (Of course, the girls are still the first ones to race out during the occasional visits of the ice cream man.)

Monkey at La Mariposa.  He grabs us when we walk by if we're not careful.

Monkey at La Mariposa. He grabs us when we walk by if we’re not careful.

Our day begins with breakfast at 7:15.  Well, except on the days when Lanie drags us up with her to do her “morning rounds”.  She does several laps around the garden, stopping frequently to pet some of the many dogs and cats that abound here (and for some reason infuriating the monkeys, who reach out and bare their teeth as we barrel past).

Bismark did not feel that I was very talented at coffee-making, but was too polite to say so.

I think that Bismark did not feel that I was very talented at coffee-making, but was too polite to say so.

Anyway, back to breakfast.  Every day there is a huge platter of very fresh, ripe fruit — bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya — most of it grown in the gardens here.  The coffee is grown here too.  (The other day I walked to the gardens with my teacher and was able to try my hand at crushing the shells off the beans.  They do it old-school here, with a big stone bowl and a very large wooden club.  I appreciated the coffee more after I gave it a try.)  There’s also granola, cornflakes, and bread.  A little later the kitchen ladies bring out a hot breakfast too.  This varies quite a bit — scrambled eggs with tomatoes, rice and beans, crepes, oatmeal.

P1000089At 8am they sound the chimes for the first class.  We meet with our individual teachers and scatter throughout the grounds to various nooks that hold our outdoor classrooms.  We each have one two-hour grammar class and one two-hour conversation class per day.  Today in my grammar class I had to take a 1+hour-long test of regular and irregular verbs (conjugations, and using in a sentence).  By the end I was exhausted and desperate to be finished.

The unfinished pinatas

The unfinished pinatas

The finished pinatas (yes, "angry birds" theme)

The finished pinatas (yes, “angry birds” theme)







We have a brief break around 10am, then begin our second class.  For our conversation classes, we sometimes walk around the grounds or into town to talk to people.  The girls have had a week-long project of making pinatas.  Today was the culmination, and most of the school ended up gathering around for the festivities.   We were given a dance lesson and then attacked the pinata in turns.  (Apparently here you’re supposed to dance while doing this.  Below is a video where Heidi demonstrates the proper procedure.)

Folklore show at the Mercado Masaya.

Folklore show at the Mercado Masaya.

Lunch follows around noon.  (Interestingly, there is fresh fruit juice at lunch and dinner, but not at breakfast.)  After lunch we usually have some free time, and then an optional excursion.  We’ve gone on most of them, but have skipped a few that don’t return until late at night.  Last night was one such trip, to the famous (but in my opinion rather disappointing) markets of Masaya, and Zoe and I went along and left the others at home.  Overall it was not the most exciting of excursions, but Lanie and I did get new dresses:


Lanie made it a project to take photos of every animal here.  I have a lot of these.

Lanie made it a project to take photos of every animal here. I have a lot of these.

Dinner is at 6, and usually includes some kind of dessert.  Afterwards we read or relax, and generally head to bed fairly early.  (We’ve grown accustomed to the roosters/dogs/etc. and are sleeping much better these days).

The weather here is beautiful — around 80 and sunny every day, with no humidity.  To our surprise, mosquitoes and other bugs seem to be quite limited.  (Our beds have mosquito nets, but we haven’t had to use them — except Lanie, who considers hers a canopy.)  Most of our living is done outside, as seems to be the case for the country as a whole.  Our meals are eaten on a terrace overlooking the gardens.  We read and work on our balcony.  This is our de facto living room:


Bob is dutifully doing his homework right after class ended.  The rest of us procrastinated.

IMG_6519The best thing about this place is the freedom we all feel.  The kids have the run of the place — the abundant greenery makes it feel large, but it’s small enough that they’re never far out of our sight.  There are no other kids here (except a 1-year-old who arrived yesterday), but the other guests have been very welcoming (and our kids, perhaps desperate for conversation with someone who (a) is not in their family and (b) speaks English, are often ready to talk their ears off).  Lanie has taken up busking after dinner, and has gathered up several coins in her violin case.  Zoe loves to do laundry.  And Nadia has made several friends here, whom she regularly chats with about horses and what we’ve done that day and horses.

It will be tough emerging from our cocoon here, and having to deal with our own transportation and meals and entertainment (and without Richard the head guide to translate for us and tell us what’s what).  But I think we’re feeling ready to face the wide world again.

The kids' side of  our family room is painted with beautiful murals

The kids’ side of our family room is painted with beautiful murals

Flirting with volcanoes


Frequent readers of our blog may remember that during our equine expedition on Saturday we enjoyed a great view of a smoking volcanic crater from the top of a nearby mountian. This will not be our last mention of volcanoes by a long shot. In fact right before we leave our Spanish school here, we hopefully will undertake a night hike up to that very same smoking crater. Volcanoes on this trip are going to be like caves were on our cross-country drive in the Getaway Van.


Note the characteristically clear February Nicaraguan sky.

But we’re not diving right into volcanoes, we’re wading in slowly. Quite literally. Yesterday we drove to a nearby lake that has formed in a crater of a not-quite extinct volcano. La Laguna de Apoyo is known as the best place to swim in Central America that is not in the ocean. There is some volcanic activity deep down in the caldera here, the water is not very cold, but because there is not much volcanic activity and a lot of water, the water is not very warm either. It’s sort of like lukewarm water.

Coconut ginger (l) and mango (r)

Coconut ginger (l) and mango (r)

It is also very beautiful and profoundly deep. The bottom of this crater is the lowest point in Central America (if you believe Jen). Something like 130 meters below sea level. The surface of the lake is significanly above sea level, so the lake goes down pretty far. The drop is pretty immediate, too. Five feet from shore and you’re in up to your knees. Fifteen feet from shore and you’re in way over your head.

You can probably see the chocolate on her face if you look closely.

You can probably see the chocolate on her face if you look closely. No, wait. You don’t even have to look closely.

We were driven inside the crater to a hotel on the water and paid $5 apiece to use the beach facilities, including kayaks and inner tubes. No one was brave enough to take the catamaran out, though there was a nice breeze. As nice as the scenery was, ice cream won the day if we consider the hearts of the girls. Nadia’s mango and Lanie’s chocolate contended for the title. Zoe’s ginger coconut wasn’t bad, either.


Our camera has a panorama feature.  Note the Pavliks in the kayak.

Our camera has a panorama feature. There are some Pavliks in the kayak on the left.  It really is a big round lake, although that’s not what this picture conveys.  Think of the milk at the bottom of your cereal bowl — if your cereal bowl were 500 meters deep.

Monkeys, parakeets, and a happy birthday

The girls

The girls’ Spanish class

We’re back in the thick of our Spanish classes again, and they are proving to be challenging. Today, one of my teachers gave me the terrifying news that tomorrow she and I are going to walk into town where I can practice by talking to random people.  I know from experience just how this will go: after much thought, I will slowly manage to put a sentence together (most likely in the wrong verb tense and with incorrect genders), and then I will nod, smile, and stare blankly as I listen to a reply that I don’t remotely understand.  I also discovered that apparently yesterday, while I was smiling and nodding, she was telling me that on Friday I have to give some kind of presentation.  I haven’t yet figured out what this entails, but I’m hoping to get some hints tomorrow without having to flat-out admit that yo no comprendo.


El mono!

This afternoon we traveled to a nature preserve, El Chocoyero.  (After initially seeing it on the schedule, we were a bit disappointed to realize that in fact it has nothing to do with chocolate.)  The ride was beautiful — we’re in the mountains here, with steep green hillsides rising and falling to the horizon, and an active volcano smoking in the distance — but we now understand why in Central America it can take an hour to travel a few miles.  After leaving the main road, we were on a rutted dirt track that descended steeply into a sharp valley — so sharp that at times we felt like we were driving through a tunnel, with almost vertical dirt walls pressing in on either side.  After bouncing around in the van for what seemed like forever, we arrived at El Chocoyero.




The holes where the birds nest

This place’s claim to fame is its bright green parakeet, the chocoyo.  They travel in large packs, and live in tunnels in a rock wall beside a waterfall.  We had a guided tour through the reserve, timed so that we would arrive at the waterfall to see the birds returning to their holes for the night.  During the walk, we also saw (and heard) our first wild monkeys!  There were also many interesting trees and plants, but I didn’t get to hear much about these because for some reason Lanie became obsessed with discussing the theme of her next birthday party (in September) and could not be silenced.

IMG_6579 IMG_6558

Upon our return, it was time for dinner and a small celebration.  Today being Bob’s birthday, I had asked the kitchen ladies if it would be possible to buy a cake.  One of them agreed to go home and make one during the day, to be ready for after dinner.  I was expecting something small and modest, but when it was unveiled it was quite impressive:


It fed the whole compound here, with plenty left over.