Saturday, December 10, 2011

Playing with Petroglyphs

Almost on a whim, I asked my counterpart if he had heard about the glyphs.  From the giddy look on his face, I could tell that a trip down to the banks of the Rio Miko is in our near future.
Cara de Mono is a tiny little farming town on the road to Rama, RAAS.  Rio Miko supplies it and all the other communities in the area with water, and also a little something else that only a few travelers have ever ventured off the roads deep enough to find it.
            Moises and I called up my sitemate, Jake, to see if he was down to see some petroglyphs.  Of course he said yes and about 30 minutes later, we were getting out of a taxi in the tiny community of Cara de Mono, or in English, monkey face. 
            The town is really more like a bus stop with a few houses built around.  There’s a corner store, a cell tower and that’s about it.  We wandered off the highway towards one of the houses.  Moises asked one of the boys in the house if he could show us the “famous” petroglyphs.  The boy, Jose, seemed happy to have a reason to get out of the house and so off we went.
            We spent about 15 minutes walking along the highway passing nothing but trees.  The RAAS is a part of Nicaragua that is massively under developed.  Combined with its northern sister state, RAAN, the two make up more than 50% of the land of the country.  However, the population is something along the lines of 10%.  So as we walked down the highway, it was rare that we passed anything other than the natural landscape. 
             Finally we reached the cemetery, a long flight of steps to get up to the plateau where the graves were.  Then our journey took us off roads completely.  We pushed our way through trees, shrubs and long grass that apparently cows frequented by the amount of pies Jake and I narrowly avoided stepping in. 
We passed pools that were homes to caimans, Central American crocodiles.  None made their presence known to us, but Jose was quite wary of them and we passed the pools quickly.
            After about 20 minutes we had reached the Miko.  We slid down rocks as slick as soapy glass cup, and made our way to the banks of the river.  Following the current, we swung under low hanging trees and climbed over boulders bigger than my bed until we reached a peninsula of rocks that jutted out into the river. 
            This was the place we had been hiking through such rugged terrain to find.  On almost every other stone was an articulately drawn monkey face or abstract shape that spiraled over the surface or the rock.  Rather cartoonish looking and certainly not as glamorous as the carvings at Tikal or Chitchen Itza, but some were still in very good condition for being on the banks of a river that would be wearing them away wet season after wet season, century after century. 
            I try normally to not look to touristy when I’m around Nicaraguans to keep my street cred.  But in the presence of basically unexcavated pre-Columbian rock art, I was ecstatic, snapping my giant tourist camera and jumping at anything that looked like a scratch on the rock to see if it was some undiscovered piece of stone art. 
            As the time went on, and we had seen all there was to see, Moises, Jose, Jake and I decided it was time to start back up the river.  We wanted to be out of the jungle before it got too dark to see where we were going or worse, Jose’s fabled caiman.  

Friday, November 4, 2011

Monkeys Motorboats and Mansions: Isletas de Granada

Satisfied with what he had seen, our new acquaintance scratched his armpits, made a soft hooting sound and darted away from our boat, up a tree branch.  I turned to look at Kathya, who is a little scared of monkeys, and we both just laughed.
One of the old major cities of Nicaragua, Granada is situated on the northwest banks of Cocibolca, Lake Nicaragua.  It’s colonial art and traditions have endured the test of time as it is one of the oldest cities in the New World.  However, our adventure didn’t take place in the city, but about 20-minute car ride out side of the city.
About two hours before our monkey encounter, the Aleman family and I were exploring the Peninsula de Asese, and looking out over the choppy waters of Cocibolca with its mini surf.  The Spanish believed that the Lake was the Pacific Ocean when they first reached it from the east, and when I got my first view of the lake, I probably would have been fooled too.
In between us and endless waters were about 365 islets that came from an explosion of the nearby Volcan Mombacho around 10 thousand years ago.  Some of these islands are fair sized while others only have a few trees just above the water level.
We were searching for a boat to take us out into them for a closer look.  According to Lonely Planet travel guides, there are a wide range of options to exploring the waters.  For those who prefer to just relax and take in the sites you can leave from Cabinas Amarillas in a sailboat for about 28 dollars an hour.  I’ve got some experience before the mast as they say, but the water near the islets is pretty shallow, and we wouldn’t be able to get close enough for a real look.  For only 10 dollars you can rent a kayak from Inuit Kayaks and paddle out for an hour.  Another option would be to take out one of the dingy motorboats with a group.  The men at the front mobbed our car as we got out shouting prices and “deals.”
The man who took me out with his family, Oscar, started talking to the touts to find us a ride.  One of them took a quick glance at me before turning back to Oscar. He then said something quickly in Spanish that made Oscar give a disgusted laugh and turn away.
“What did he say?” I asked.
“He saw that you were a chele and wanted to charge us in dollars instead of cordobas,” he said laughing again.  “He wanted 600 dollars to charter the boat privately.”
I knew for a fact that it shouldn’t be more than 20 US for the whole trip.  Being a chele, white person in Nicaraguan slang, has real drawbacks in the tourist destinations.  Other Peace Corps volunteers have told me rumors of places that almost don’t even hide that they have two prices, one for locals and one for Americans.
So the search continued until we found a small boat with an even smaller motor in the back that would take us out alone for about 500 cordobas.  Kathya, Oscar, Mayra and I all took our seats as the young guide backed us out into the lake with silent precision.
After spying the name of the dingy, Juanita, Mayra turned to the guide to ask if his name was Juan.
“No...” he said with a confused look on his face.  “My name is Ricardo.”
Mayra explained why she asked.  She then asked where he got such a pretty name for his boat.
The teenage boy started blushing.  “It’s my mom’s name.”
Mayra being the Latin mama she is immediately started praising him for being such a good son, which made his blush more.
The rest of us decided to spare him by asking him more questions about the islets.  We were passing huge, grand mansions on some of them while others had restaurants and even a small hotel.  Several more had humble tin shacks that housed some of the poorest of Granada.
Each islet had a story.  Ricardo would point to one and say, “That big house there, that’s the French family,” and then to another, “That restaurant there, you can buy one fish that’s big enough for 4 people to eat.”
Finally we made it to the island of our little friends.  Isleta de Mono or Monkey Island is one of the smallest you’ll see in the archipelago.  The island is a sanctuary for capuchins and spider monkeys.  The constant flow of visitors has turned them quite friendly towards humans if not actually a bit entitled feeling.  When they see new boats approaching, they come down to see the people.  Once they see that they’re just taking pictures and not going to give them anything in exchange, they retreat back into the leaves.
As it grew late, the time had come to leave the islets.  Ricardo brought the Juanita about to head back to Cabinas Amarillas.  I turned to face the western sun as it set behind Granada and Mombacho.  The sunset cast orange light over the city, the waters and the faces of all of us in that little dingy as we thrummed our way back to shore leaving the islets to fade in to night.

Originally published in Va Pues, March 2012
(The Peace Corps magazine in Nicaragua)

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Great Volcan Masaya

Smoke and sulfur belched upward continuesly from Nicaragua’s most active volcano.  Rain poured down and the wind whipped at my face stinging it like acid as I tried to look down into Volcan Masaya’s enormous crater, hoping for a glimpse of molten lava.
Peace Corps Training was officially halfway over now, and as a reward, we were given a free trip to Volcan Masaya National Park.  Although it Masaya is far from the highest volcano even in the immediate area, with Volcan Mombacho so big we could see it in the distance from the Masaya park, Masaya’s constant activity attracts visitors from all over the world.
According  to the park’s visitor center more than 50 percent of their patronage comes from “extranjeros” or foreign tourists.  The entrance to the park is 100 cordobas, roughly four US dollars.  For that, not only can you visit the crater itself, but also a very educational museum dedicated to it.
There are exhibits of the volcano’s geology and how it effects the local environment as well as a history of how the volcano was seen by human societies.  Ancient tribes believed that a “Hag deity” lived at the bottom of the crater and was honored with human sacrifices.  The Spanish saw the place as the gateway to hell and proceeded to baptize the volcano and mount a large wooden cross on the top.
Naturally we weren’t out at this site just for fun.  Peace Corps decided to use the place for our diversity session.  The idea was people are like volcanos, they have some really amazing topical features that make them different in appearance. However, if you get down to the core of them all, there’s a chamber of molten magma deep down in all of them that makes them who they really are.  At first hearing this metaphor I wasn’t totally on board but after going up the slopes of Masaya, I started to get a better idea of how right it really was.
We drove all the way up to the lip of the crater.  Being allowed to do this is something that is unique to this volcano in not just Nicaragua but the whole world.  In 2001 it “burped up boulders” according to Moon travel guides, damaging cars and narrowly missing people.
Lonely Planet travel guides say that Volcan Masaya is for adventure tourism, and it is suggested to limit your visits to only 20 minutes.  The billowing clouds of greyish sulfur smoke that smells like a full latrine will convince you to keep it short if the warning didn’t.  But don’t let that keep you away from this place.  It’s amazing to stand on the shoulder of one of nature’s great marvels of raw power.

Originally published in Va Pues, March 2012
(The Peace Corps magazine in Nicaragua)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Independence Day: An American in Nicaragua

When I saw that my Peace Corps service was going to keep me in Nicaragua for over two years, I started thinking about what that meant.  It means, if there’s going to be holiday, I’m going to be there for it.  I didn’t think the first would actually be their independence from us!
Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s mostly true.  September, 15th marks the day Nicaragua fought back against Spain and the 16th commemorates the battle against the American-born dictator, William Walker.  I’m not going to get into the whole history of that because I'm no expert so, I’ll stick to what I experienced on Nicaraguan Independence Day. But since the preparations for this started way before, I think it’s best that I follow their lead.
Every morning, for about the past week and a half in this tiny town of La Paz, has been filled with the ringing and banging of hundreds of drums, snares and xylophones as all the children prepare for a grand parade up and down all five or 6 streets that make up this little pueblo.
The noise permeates just about everything.  Even while at the school trying to observe their classes, the other volunteers and I were almost having to stuff our fingers in our ears to tone down the insistent “THRUM DRUM CRASH!” 
The sound made studying impossible for both the students in the class and us volunteers trying to learn how to improve things.  We all reached the same conclusion that if they practice like this for every holiday, and there’s a lot of’em down here, some kind of wall to separate the band from the rest of society is going to be at the top of the priority list.
Even when you go home, that’s not enough to escape.  The students regularly practice marching through the streets in the late afternoons for the last few days before the actual parade.
“Imagine if these kids could put all this energy into something else,” said Carol, one of the 3 volunteers here in La Paz.
Well I tried to think what the town would be like without the primary school band, the secondary school band, the church band… Honestly, there’s nothing else left in this town for these kids to do after school.  In the US, there are a million student orgs, teams, clubs as well as hot spots to hang out.  Here… not so many.  The bands are about it.
Finally, the day had come for everything these kids had been practicing for the real deal.  The all dressed up in their brightest whites and most navy of blues, the colors of the Nicaraguan flag.  Bright and early, they start their regimental procession over the cobble stones of tiny streets with no names.
A quick look through their ranks reveals that there is only percussion, no horns or reeds.   What they lack in tone, they make up for in rhythm.   A section of girls carry an instrument that looks like a round cheese grater and a whisk that they scrap together as they dance their way through the street.
Being one of only three Americans in the entire pueblo, and the fact that they’re celebrating freedom from a white American dictator, I expected some anti-American sentiment to be a bit of an issue, but surprisingly, I was being introduced to more people that day than the entire time I’ve spent here.  In fact the people were so generous that if I ever uttered that I was thirsty, a complete stranger would dash in doors to her kitchen and bring me a glass of water.
Independence means something different to these people it seems.  It’s not about kicking out the foreigners or hating their past oppressors.  For them, it’s about becoming their own sustainable community and being in charge of their own destinies, not having someone tell them what is permitted.  If they want to give water to a thirsty gringo, they can and they do.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A new blog for a new adventure

I’m opening up this new blog here to help me document what all happens as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua. There are a few things I can’t share with you as I am a government employee, but never fear, the truth will be heard one day. Mwa haha!! Not quite that dramatic, but there are a few safety issues and some people’s reputations have to be put on a need to know basis.

Other than that, this is my story. At this time I am two months into my service, and almost 5 months in Nicaragua. I’ll back date some of my older stories and photos soon. But for now, enjoy reading about my amazing adventure. This is Mike “Miguel” Patterson signing off