Nicaragua, part 1 of 3. Over the last two weeks I have discussed educational challenges facing Costa Rica with the U.S. Ambassador, enjoyed engaging conversation with my Fulbright colleagues, made strides with the SWIISS event, opened some brilliant new doors, closed a couple, traversed two countries, fallen deeper in love with my wife, and shaped a lot of wood. Everything is coming and going so fast it’s a blur, but occasionally I find it possible to grab moments and pieces and cherish them for all they are worth. We had to renew our visas in Costa Rica, so we decided to visit Nicaragua. The experience turned out to be one of those moments I had to stop time for. Pretend I had nothing else to do. Live only in the moment. For Susan and me both it was easily one of the richest and most vibrant experiences of our lives, and that’s a tall order when given our current circumstances and station in life.
Nicaragua is a wondrous place. The country is conflicted by the remnants of an all too recent violent and oppressive military history, not helped by subsequent neglect from the international community that enabled that history to manifest. Major areas are devastated by ruinous tectonic forces and the country lacks a healthy and stable enough economy to recover. Nationwide the country is rife with poverty and suffers from the full complement of related problems. Citizens are ailed profoundly by a lack of education, medicine, and welfare. The people of Nicaragua are openly aware of nationalistic prejudice against them. Their natural resources have been continuously pillaged by other nations for centuries and sadly their deep struggles only nurture serious gang violence and drug related criminal activity. In the face of that miserable litany of tragedy, abuse, and neglect, Nicaraguans shine brilliantly as one of the brightest, kindest, and most colorful peoples in the world. Their rigid resilience to oppression is deeply touching and I so wish I could describe the effect it has on me.
Nicaraguans are natively beautiful, hard-working, and earnest people. They delightfully confuse me with their shared tranquility and outward kindness to international visitors especially when they clearly understand that they will only gain spiritually from that kindness. Despite every reason to be overrun with sorrow, Nicaraguans are proud people and transcend the digressions of man against them. Susan and I celebrate their wonderful society with the very essence of our convictions and have vowed to learn from their example, share their story with the world, and return in the future to help wherever we can. Our life changing journey began as a spur of the moment realization in the dizzying midst of meetings and business that our passports needed to be renewed. Our first visa renewal was a simple walk across – stamp – and walk back across the famous Paso Canoas border at Panama. Since arriving at the edge of the world we have been itching to journey deeper into Central America, and I have been attracted to Nicaragua because of a long time fascination with their complex history, geography, and artisanal communities. So we made a spontaneous decision to go north and cross the border into Nicaragua. In less than a half hour, (while I was authoring artists’ contracts for SWIISS), Susan booked budget roundtrip flights to Liberia connecting by bus to Granada, and found outstanding lodging in a city center hotel. So first things first.
Low flight over Costa Rica is beautiful. Anyone planning a visit to this country needs to make sure they budget for one bush plane trip over the mountains and forests, and after flying with Nature Air, I highly recommend them. Their planes are very nice and well maintained by all standards and their pilots are on point. A little travel savvy will earn tickets at great prices and itineraries on comfortable schedules. My only complaint is that we haven’t done this before now. The plane ride saved us many hours of ground travel on both legs of our trip. We got a cab to the bus stop/restaurant/hotel and had just enough time for two cups of coffee and a nice local style breakfast before paying a guy at a restaurant table (a little sketchy I have to admit) for the bus tickets we had already booked. All was fine though. We paid him and he in turn walked us to the actual bus stop and gave us our tickets. We had a brief and uneventful ride to the border followed by the predictably gritty Central American border crossing. We were lumped in to a throbbing mass of disorganized confusion littered with shouting, stink, trash, half-blind pan handlers and run of the mill hustlers, gangbangers, pasty white gringos, starving dogs, and groups of smiling bus drivers, all of us corralled around like steer to slaughter by border agents of questionable integrity.Susan and I were delighted. We live for these adventures and this one was particularly rich and vibrant. After a useless bag search and some time in the dust and blazing sun we were back into our front row seats on the bus. Our driver brought with him a full plate of rice, beans, salad, chicken, and tortillas. He put us in gear and accelerated to full speed. All the while he ate using both hands as though he were sitting at a dining table – not driving a giant bus full of people; never forgetting to wave at oncoming friends, honk at oncoming busses, or even block traffic for a good old cultural standoff with a man from his opposing nationality. We blazed past the poor rural homes and cattle farms on the southwestern shores of Lake Nicaragua. We were immediately and profoundly struck by the reality that these poor, hardworking farmers live in the shadows of two giant, active strata volcanos on Ometepe (oh-may-teh-pay) island; Volcan Concepcion (1610 meters [5282.15 feet]) and Volcan Maderas (1394 meters [4573.5 feet]). We were glued to the window like five year old children “WOOWWW!!! Real volcanos!”. Really, wow. We continued to laugh at the bus driver as he redefined distracted driving by eating a dinner plate followed by an hours-worth of texting and talking from his 5, yes 5, different cell phones, and joking with the bus attendant. We passed through a few gritty working towns and then arrived in Granada.