Every day, the thought of your cloudy skies and rainy streets permeate my mind. I never thought either of those things would appeal to me, not now they’re forever preserved in amber in my memory.
I flew into you, knowing little more about you than the fact that you’re bursting with about eight million people.
The hum of Pillar Point’s Dove oozing from my headphones, I gazed out onto the hazy, emerald mountains outside my scratched, undersized window. I’d watched Kia Labeija voguing through Bogotá each day before visiting you, each time my soul building with anticipation to wander La Candelaria’s cobblestoned streets.
I couldn’t wait to see your jarring contrast of skyscrapers and Montserrat’s looming presence with my own eyes. I wanted to feel as free as the uncaged Kia.
As soon as I arrived, I felt disoriented. Which way was North? I wondered countless times. My obsession with order was flipped on its head. I’m usually quick to orient myself, but with mountains on all sides, it was hard to do so.
Which way is up? I might as well have wondered. I was vulnerable in a most basic sense, but I’ve learned to grow from this discomfort.
I was nervous and thrilled, but with you, this excitement was different. I’d returned somewhere I’d never visited. I felt as if you’d been waiting patiently for me all these years, trusting I’d walk in the door eventually. Like a dormant volcano whose crater filled with water over millennia, you basked in waiting.
What was the rush?
I’d meet you in due time. Now, as I write this, I realize how much I miss you. I miss the cool air that put my blankets to use. I miss wearing jeans without sweating and layering my clothes. I miss the peppery smell emanating from food carts selling warm empanadas.
“Beef or chicken?” the vendor asked me.
“Mmm…One of each, please. Oh, and do you not have salsa?”
“Como no,” he said, and he placed the magical ingredients in a brown paper bag.
I felt inspired during the Bogota Graffiti Tour. I’d learned of the artists from Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand who’ve made this place their second home, and now I wanted to join them.
A Reptilian monster wrapped itself around buildings’ unassuming walls, and an indigenous woman looked to the sky, averting her gaze from us mortals. I’d learned of the artist the police had shot, then of the subsequent police barrier protecting Justin Beiber while he stained your walls. Once the police left, your artists reclaimed your wall.
I loved the atmosphere of change. Of recuperation from trauma of a violent, capitalist-driven cocaine trade. Just like with any trauma, I’ve never completely recovered from mine. I constantly seek to explore my traumas and the effects they’ve had on me, and writing has been my saving grace in that process.
I was only there for three days, yet I was blessed with being able to queer it up during the LGBTQ Pride Parade. Just like Pride in Managua, Nicaragua, you haven’t sold out to corporate interests. Instead of free t-shirts, I got kisses on the cheek from new friends. We floated past the rainbow banners in between patches of sunlight that the skyscrapers’ granted us. I took my sweater off and put it back on.
I danced the night away at the immensely fabulous gay club, Theatron, then on the taxi ride home, I fell into darkness. It could’ve happened anywhere, and I’ve learned just how resilient I am since it happened.
I wanted to stay. You know, I really do love museums. It’s how I get to know a place intimately. I wanted to dive further into you, to explore your history in its glory, sadness, and tumult. I still want to know you. I felt the heaviness in my heart one feels when they’re not ready to leave a place. This feeling reminds me of Iranian author Azar Nafisi’s words about leaving:
“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place… like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” – Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
I miss who I was when I was with you. Now you know. I can’t wait to explore you again.
Day 1: Meeting new friends for my first Couchsurfing experience in Cartagena, Colombia.
I had traveled solo to Cartagena, Colombia, and I’d spent a day wandering the streets of the walled city. I’d also posted on the Couchsurfing facebook group to ask if anyone wanted to meet up. Couchsurfing is so much more than finding a place to crash for free. It’s a site for meeting and/or staying with locals all over the world, and it’s a great way to meet people while traveling solo. A woman my age named Angie, who was visiting from Madellin, responded to my facebook post and invited me to a nearby beach, La Playa Blanca on Isla Baru, with her and her friends.
Since I hadn’t couchsurfed with anyone in seven years, I knew that I just needed to be vulnerable and eager to learn about my new friends. In the morning of my beach trip, I met up with Angie, who is originally from the coast. She lives in Medellin and was visiting Cartagena. She wore the prettiest, most colorful sundress and then I met her friend Marticela (Marti), who is also a Caribeña living in Medellin. She was taking care of her parents’ house for the week. Marticela’s cousin and friend joined.
On the car ride to the beach, I was sitting in the backseat, surrounded by strangers who were basically asking me “So…who are you?” I explained that I was volunteering as an English teacher in Nicaragua, but that my interests have shifted from education to the women’s travel industry. Having a social media presence helped me show them about my passion for travel through my blog and instagram.
They asked me what I thought about Colombia, and I shared that I wanted to come back even though I hadn’t even left yet. There was so much to see and do. I told them that a lot of my friends made stereotypical cocaine reference before I came here. Heck, I even made a cocaine reference to a Colombian classmate of mine in college. I was ignorant of the fact that making a reference like this is insulting to someone whose country has suffered so much and is now recovering from its violent past.
“Oh, you didn’t know? It’s going to be a big drug fest at the beach,” they joked. We laughed and stopped for the most delicious gas station breakfast: beef empanadas with salsa. We drank tinto (coffee) from our small styrofoam cups, loaded up on snacks, and pressed on.
We got to the beach early and it wasn’t so crowded. We paid to rent an umbrella and some beach chairs and I slathered on my sunscreen. Vendors sold anything from seashell necklaces, to Club Colombia beer, to coconut oil all stopped by. I jumped in the water, and a jet ski pulled a team of bouncing kids on a banana boat. All I could think of was Jaws. Just as I had harbored ridiculous images of the impending drug cartel war I’d imagined I’d experience in Colombia, I was irrationally thinking about sharks.
After swimming in the tranquil, light blue Caribbean, I came back to my new friends. We drank Club Clasica (which we tried to make sure had been sitting in a fridge that was at least turned on this morning) and got to know each other. I learned that Angie had experience hosting other couchsurfers before and that she enjoyed meeting foreigners.
If I could describe hiking the cliffs of Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa in three words, they would be: misty, exhausting, and dreamy.
Peñas Blancas is part of a nature reserve that’s just a three-hour bus ride from my site. Despite it boasting some of the most beautiful views of the surrounding land and waterfalls, it took me nearly two years to make the trek. When you’re living in a tourist area, you tend to blow of the tourist options and hold off until the last minute to enjoy them.
Jen, my hiking buddy, and I boarded the El Cua-Bocay chicken bus ($2) from Matagalpa’s North Station (Guanuca) at 7 a.m. She caught me up on her recent half marathon near Liberia, Costa Rica, and I told her about the new sign language class I’m taking on Saturdays. Jen and I have hiked Cosiguina Volcano and we’ve cliff-jumped through Somoto Canyon, and I was excited about our new adventure.
We chugged along the windy road (the first two hours were paved) and I noticed how lush the outside of my city was. I live in the mountains, but with the amount of buildings, car horns, and smog, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels too domesticated. I do appreciate having more consistent access to wi-fi and air conditioning than many volunteers, but before joining the Peace Corps, I never imagined I’d live in a place I’d love but that I’d also need to escape from for some fresh air.
Around 11 a.m., the bus dropped us off at the entrance to Los Guardianes del Bosque (The Guardians of the Forest), a coffee cooperative. There were only a handful of small, wooden houses and locals starting at Jen and I as we stretched our legs. We’d be staying with Don Chico (505-2770-1359), who I read about in my Moon Guide to Nicaragua. I’d reserved the day before over the phone with his wife, whose melodic accent was 100% norteña.
An old man with a fixed grin and dark, beady eyes came to us and extended his hand. “Buenas, I’m Francisco,” he said. This short, stout man wore rubber boots, jeans, a black quicksilver cap, and a blue and green plaid shirt. “Oh, so you’re the famous Don Chico!” I exclaimed, and he nodded, repeating what I’d said. He did this a lot. I didn’t mind the affirmation.
To call Don Chico a jack-of-all trades doesn’t do him justice. He’s a 77-year-old medicine man, farmer, tour guide, naturalist, great grandfather, trail builder, and musician. His neck sunk into his shoulders, and he walked with a purpose. I didn’t see him frown once. He seemed so happy to be alive. Continue reading “Hiking Peñas Blancas, Matagalpa”→
Before joining the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, I imagined I’d be roughing it. I even bought a solar-powered shower that was on sale because I thought I’d be camping in a hut for 27 months.
I knew there would be mosquitoes, humidity, and delicious mangoes in a bag, but there wasn’t much else I knew to expect– just like anyone who is about to jump into a new life.
I knew Nicaragua is Latin America’s most impoverished nation, so I assumed there were things like cooking that I’d be doing myself. I loved cooking anyway, so it would be no problem for me to whip up breakfast tacos or pasta (little did I know that my host family would prepare pasta with rice on the side). I didn’t expect my host family to cook my meals-I wanted to be in control of what I ate.
While I did expect to cook my own meals, I didn’t expect to wash all of my clothes by hand. When I was a teenager, my mom taught me how to hand wash a shirt here or there on top of which I might’ve spilled some mustard. I can still remember that bright pink bar of soap and how she taught me to squeeze out all of the soap from my shirt after I scrubbed and rinsed it. Then, we’d stick it in the dryer. Drying our clothes outside for most of the year in Washington State was a joke. 99.9% of the time, we relied on our washer and dryer.
Washing clothes by hand may seem like a hassle, but I’ve grown to accept it as a mundane task I don’t mind doing. It’s meditative. I’m in full control of how and when my clothes are washed in my washbasin. Well, I’m not actually in full control of when I can wash my clothes–that depends on when there is running water. Although I live in one of the largest Peace Corps sites, my host family and I frequently go for two to three days without any water, especially during the dry season. I never imagined I’d live in a place where the water that washed my clothes depended on the rainfall.
Sometimes, as we wait patiently for water, we’ll leave the water valve twisted open, even though no water comes out. Eventually, it will. We’ll sit and watch trashy telenovelas (soap operas) when suddenly, we hear the trickle of water droplets falling.
Ya llego el agua!
The water’s on!
Then, it’s a mad rush to fill every bucket, barrel, and empty 2-liter Coke bottle with water. We hear our neighbors doing the same. It turns into a big cleaning party, and I channel my inner Cinderella as I wash my clothes and mop my tile floor.
Que alegre que hay agua!
How nice that the water’s on!
My host grandma, Mita, reminds me of the little joys in life when she says this. The water comes and goes, and washing my clothes myself becomes so much more than a mundane task. It becomes an exciting routine that makes me appreciate running water–something I’ll never take for granted again in the states.
And no, I have not used that solar-powered shower once in the Peace Corps. When I’ll leave, I’ll give it to my host family, and they will probably bestow some sort of practicality upon it, like using it to store beans.
The Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua’s Rio San Juan department don’t usually make it on most travelers’ itineraries. The Solentiname archipelago lies at the southeastern corner of the massive Lake Nicaragua, and the islanders experienced a liberation theology movement led by the priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal. Ernesto built a church on Mancarron Island and inspired the locals to create landscape paintings and artisanry that are so endemic to the islands.
After having been in Nicaragua for nearly two years, I hadn’t even visited this area because of how far away Solentiname was. The seemingly inconsistent boat schedules also deterred me. I was dying to visit a place with fellow painters because times are rough where I am. It’s been hard to find other artists who I could share my work with. Luckily, my time to visit came when my boss asked me to observe Stacey, another TEFL volunteer living in the region.
I woke up at 5 AM on a Sunday morning without drinking water as I’m used to doing. I needed to dehydrate myself for the seven hour bus ride. The Rio San Juan department is so far away that it borders Costa Rica, but Nicaraguans proudly call the 119-mile river of the same name theirs. Stickers boasting “The San Juan River is ours!” are pasted on buses here.
I took a taxi to Managua’s Mayoreo terminal, then I hopped on the bus at 5:30. It cost 150 cordobas, which at the time was about $5.30. Since it was Sunday, not many people were traveling, so I could have easily gotten a seat right before the bus left at 6 AM. Vicente Fernandez, a famous Mexican singer, crooned over the speakers in the bus.
Vendors boarded the bus. A woman in a crisp, white polo and white sneakers glided through the aisle, saying “rosquillas, rosquillas” (baked corn cakes that taste like salty cardboard, but they’re great when you’re hungry). She had only three bags left in her hand and I’m sure she sold them quickly. A man came in and offered apples shrink-wrapped onto Styrofoam plates.
The engine rumbled to a start, and my nervous excitement kicked in as I felt the slight tremor under my feet. I’d finally go somewhere new! The Rio San Juan, Nueva Segovia, and the RAAN (which is off-limits for Peace Corps volunteers) are the only departments I hadn’t been to.
I’m glad I packed National Geographic magazines and my Moon guidebook to Nicaragua. As the bus cruised along, I was transported to the world of Kinshasa, Congo’s chaotic, creative capital. I read about the city’s relentlessly passionate artists, like Chéri Chérin, who paint next to lanterns at night because most of the city’s power goes out at night. While I get annoyed that the water runs out for days on end here, I still have a consistent supply of electricity.
San Carlos is a tiny, clean port town with not much else other than restaurants, bars, and a fortress. I decided that I didn’t feel like I needed more time to explore the town, so I boarded a boat to Solentiname. I paid $10 for the Transol ride. Every day at 3 PM, boats leave San Carlos for Solentiname. The cheaper boats cost about $3.50, but they only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. I thought it would be worth the investment, and I’d have two days in Solentiname anyway.
I called Hostal Vanessaon San Fernando (or Elvis Chavarría) Island, Solentiname’s second biggest island. José, or Chepe, reserved my private room with a bathroom ($12). I was lucky he answered my call since cell service is so spotty out there. He happened to be on the biggest island, Mancarron, when I’d called.
San Fernando Island, Solentiname
My motorboat pulled out of the dock into Lake Nicaragua, which was at an all-time low because of the insanely dry summer. I saw a man walking in the middle of the lake, and I couldn’t believe it at first. The lake is Central America’s largest, but it’s definitely not the deepest. As I put on my lifejacket, I looked out at the never-ending water and could see Solentiname in the distance. It felt like I was in ocean.
After about an hour, the boat dropped me off at San Fernando, where Chepe was waiting for me. He even helpeded me onto the dock! The islands were so small and I must have been one of only a handful of tourists. He knew exactly who I was just from our phone conversation. Chepe showed me to my room, and I asked him if Ernesto Cardenal were around, but he said that he was in Managua. I might be able to meet him at the Casa de los Tres Mundos Art Gallery. Ernesto only visits the islands about four times a year.
As we spoke, one word came to mind: solitude.
Not the miserable kind of loneliness, but the solitude of hearing only birds chirping and the slightest rumble of the boats chugging along. There was no smog, no ambulances wailing, and no motorcycles screeching to a halt. All of these things characterize my city. While I love being in a city, it felt incredibly calm here.
There was a hammock right outside my room, and I knew we would be getting to know each other soon. I asked Chepe if it were safe for a woman to walk around, and he said that there have never been reports of rape or violence against foreigners. Since there aren’t many people on the islands, there’s much less anonymity and a sense of safety that I didn’t know I’d miss so much.
As soon as I showed Chepe my paintings, he showed me around the island to visit his friends and family members who also paint. Almost everyone is an artist here. His wife showed me her artwork. My favorite was the painting of the islands at sunset, with the water dyed a bright orange.
Chepe and I walked along the narrow path to Albergue Celentiname (email@example.com), a hotel overlooking the water that is owned by Doña Maria Guevara, a painter who fled to Costa Rica for two years to work with the likes of Gioconda Belli to feed the flames of the revolution. She returned in 1979, when the populist movement ousted The Dictator, Somoza.
Maria wore a bright pink dress and sat in a chair-like hammock. Chepe introduced me to her, and we talked about painting, the revolution, and gender roles. “Women are responsible for educating men, since men come from women,” she said. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything she said, but I respected her. We shared the warm, humid air between us and I was fascinated by her story.
“I haven’t even left yet, and I know I want to come back! I knew that I had to come here to meet you,” I said to her. She thanked me and said that it was lovely meeting me as well.
For dinner, I went to one of the few if not the only restaurant on the island, and paid 140 cordobas (around $5) for a simple plate of tostones (friend, smashed plantains), rice, chicken, and avocado. That plate on the mainland would cost half as much, but because of the time and money it takes to ship goods out here, everything costs more. The chicken was the best I’d had in the country—the meat wasn’t overly cooked, and it was marinated in citrus. The crown jewel was the locally-grown avocado, though. The massive, green wedges tasted like butter.
The nighttime was insanely hot. Since many hotels and homes are solar-powered, the electricity only ran at night in my room. I was so tired that I went to bed at 7 and my fan shut off by 4 AM because the solar energy ran out. I was nervous to sleep with the window open because I was alone, and there was a simple screen covering it, so I shut myself in and delt with the heat. I got my towel and handkerchief wet and lay them over my nacked body to cool down even the slightest bit.
In the morning, I found out that Chepe had left the island to help build a school on Mancarron. He’d told me the day before that he’d show me where I could get cell service, but since he was gone, I found a replacement.
Then, I came back to Maria’s to show her my paintings from my ipad. Both of her scarlet macaws were sitting on the floor, eating their food from bowls. They looked like dogs. Maria scrolled through my acrylic portraits, and she liked them because they don’t involve just the faces of the people I paint—the portraits are about the movement of the people, whether they are cooking, washing, or playing with cats. I asked her for advice, and she suggested that I make the background behind my main subject darker so that the subject could pop out more.
Maria and I spent the entire morning together. She told me about the very first painting she ever did, which was of a tree, and how she couldn’t stop thinking about it until she painted it. Ernesto then took it to sell it in Managua for $400, and she was crushed despite the hefty earnings she’d unintentionally made. “That painting was mine, and there was nothing else that existed for me at the time. I haven’t seen the painting since.” We snacked on some granola bars I’d packed as she told me her stories.
She brought out her binoculars to watch the different species of herons, egrets, and songbirds flutter by and crash onto the branches. Although it was insanely hot, humid, and dry, I could imagine how green and vivid the islands must look in the rainy season. The air was so hot that I didn’t want to move, so Maria told me to lay down in a hammock and relax. Like me, I could tell that she likes to stay busy. She went in and out of the kitchen to prepare some beans for her guests.
I felt more at peace than I’d felt in a while. Spending an entire morning with a stranger and laying in their hammock isn’t something I would have done in the states, but here it is normal. I like this kind of normal.
After lunch at the same restaurant, I made my way back the one path to the artisanry museum, the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname($1), which unfortunately was closed for Labor Day. I did, however, stumble upon an artisanal workshop, where I bought the most well-made earrings I’ve seen here. The woman with the key to the shop, Marielos, saw me coming up the stairs and introduced herself. She then opened the doors, and I couldn’t believe the amount of painted birds, fish, and turtles there were, either laying on the tables or hanging from the mobiles. I bought meticulously painted tucan, parrot, and fish-shaped earrings made of light driftwood.
As I tried each of the earrings on, I got to know Marielos, who flipped through the paintings I had stored in my ipad. She asked me if I’d heard from Mateo, a former Peace Corps Volunteer who’d spent three years on the islands, and left in 2000. “He used to stay in touch with us, but then he got married and stopped talking to us. I wonder if something happened to him when the twin towers collapsed.” I tried comforting her, telling her that not everyone is very good at keeping in touch.
By 4 PM, I returned yet again to Maria’s hotel so that I could catch a boat ride to Mancarron for 150 cordobas. It was ten minutes away. One of the men who worked for her, Daniel, took myself and a Costa Rican couple. We walked along the path through town, and I saw the colorful stained-glass windows of the church that was locked shut. We stopped through different houses, gazing at the wood carvings and paintings of the local flora and fauna. Some people owned parrots, and a green parrot looked down at my group, softly whispering “hola.” It was nice seeing a different island, but I was happy I was staying on San Fernando.
That night, I paid Estelbina, Chepe’s wife, the $24 for both nights at Hostal Vanessa, and since Chepe would be running the boat to San Carlos in the morning, I paid for the 90 cordoba fare for that, too.
Chepe had told me that the boat stops by at 5:30 AM, but Estelbina’s sister advised me to be ready by five. The spotty schedules made me nervous, so I woke up at 4:45 (after having slept with the window open) and I was at the dock early. By 5:15, the boat pulled in. I jumped in and we were out of the port by 5:20. It’s a good thing I’d gotten ready early.
The boat sailed slowly over the water. I peered out at the different islands, and tried to guess at which one was Zapotillo, which once housed an orphanage and a pedophile Evangelist priest who was eventually chased into Costa Rica. Costa Rica was so close that if it weren’t so hazy, I would’ve been able to see the Arenal Volcano to the south.
I was filled with so much happiness that I’d finally found a community of painters with whom I could share my art. I’d love to return to Solentiname during the rainy season so that I no longer need to imagine the potential of its beauty.
Is there anything you’d like to know about Solentiname? Share in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Last night I went out at Caramanchel in Managua, and there you were, on the dance floor in a wheelchair, surrounded by your friends. I fell in love with the way in which your wheelchair essentially disappeared.
Your friends took turns spinning you around and dancing for you. Your face was lit up as you jived to the beat. I went up and danced with you, then high fived you. I asked if it was your birthday. It looked like such a celebration. “No, it’s my coworker’s birthday!” I think you said. I couldn’t hear much, and as I write this, my ears are still ringing from the music.
Then, I shared a cold Heineken with you, which you passed off to your friend. She promptly it held against her cheek to cool off.
What a beautiful sight. Being here has taught me that even when you cannot stand, you can still dance.
As my friend Laura Higgs says, the Global Education field can lead you to work in diverse areas like the Peace Corps (and vice versa, many of her colleagues decided to go into global education because of their time in the Peace Corps).
Laura works for Rotary and is based in Chicago. We met online through Twitter while discussing mental health, female empowerment, and Texas. We haven’t met in person yet, but hopefully we will once my service ends. Check out my interview on her page, where I share my advice and experience as a Diversity Trainer in the Peace Corps!