Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Nicaragua, Nicaraguita

Once again we hit the road last week to travel to Nicaragua for another "visa vacation," our required border run to be able to stay in Costa Rica.

This time we decided to stay with the Garcia family in Pio XII for four out of five nights, taking one day and night to travel north to León. For our short trip to León, we took along one of the Garcia kids, Sadie's good friend Natasha. We figured Sadie would have a lot more fun with Natasha around and therefore might better indulge our desires to look at old crumbling buildings and museums. As it turns out, none of us had much stamina for walking around in the very very hot city of León. We hit the big church (beautiful and with an added bonus of being able to climb up to the roof), then a wonderful modern art museum housed in two incredible historical mansions (think thirty-foot ceilings, huge carved wooden doors, tile floors, gigantic glass chandeliers, interior courtyards), and then we were all pretty much done.

The view from the top of the cathedral

Los Angeles Tienda

Natasha was fun to have along as she and Sadie could spend hours simply wandering around the hotel. However she was a bit nervous to be with us on the trip I think (she hasn't left home much) and she was polite to the extreme. She barely ate dinner or breakfast and seemed to feel really badly about it. I wasn't sure exactly what was going on with her, though I figured it out fairly soon. On our way out of town, we were flagged down by the police. As we pulled over to the side of the road, Natasha stuck her head outside of the car and vomited. Though I felt badly for her, I did think her timing was terrific. What policeman would want to deal with a car with a puking kid in it? (either that or he'd wonder why a couple of gringos had a young sick paperless Nicaraguan in their car). Sadly, Natasha's state seemed to affect the police not one bit. While I took care of Natasha, the policemen proceeded to argue with Ian about his supposed infraction and described some sort of convoluted process involving lots of money and paperwork back in León. Ian asked Natasha to come help him understand what the police were saying. While the poor pale girl stood in the road with her water bottle and did her best to talk with the police, Ian used the opportunity to get his wallet. A $20 was exchanged and we were waved away. So long, León.

Life in Pio XII is much different than life in León. Pio XII is a lovely small town. Small enough to feel tranquil but large enough to spend an afternoon sitting on the stoop people watching. The roads are paved, but the streets are narrow and lined with all types of trees, most seeming to have some sort of edible fruit. The dominant form of transportation in and around Pio XII is the 3-wheeled "moto-taxis" ("tuk-tuks" elsewhere), a fast and easy way to travel around the relatively flat landscape.

The Garcia family lives on a main road in Pio XII. There are a total of seven adults and ten children living in a group of small houses arranged on a plot of land. In the front of one of the houses is a small store selling various daily items such as coffee, eggs, oil, bread, batteries, crackers, soda, etc. to the population of Pio XII. When Ian stayed with the family 20 years ago, there was one small house with a dirt floor and an outdoor bathroom. Since that time, they have added several more houses, indoor plumbing, floors, and made many other improvements. The living is communal and everyone takes care of each other, though each family has particular jobs they are responsible for. It took me forever to figure out who was cooking for us, where the food was cooked and where the dishes were being washed. For the most part, we never saw the inside of any of the houses, we ate and visited in various outdoor areas among the houses. Across the street was a house belonging to a woman currently living in San Francisco. Oscar has been working on her house for her and he and his wife, and Ian, Sadie and I all slept there at night. It was very luxurious accommodations, really, with our own room and a big bathroom with a shower.

But back to eating. Did I mention that we ate a lot? Though the original patriarch of the family died recently, the matriarch, Dona Teodora or "Mama," is very much alive and well and very insistent on us eating. A lot. The food was relatively simple, but delicious. We had rice and beans (gallo pinto) for virtually every meal, accompanied by eggs in the morning, salad at lunch, and vegetables, meat and cheese in the evenings. In between we ate lots of fruit (mangoes, oranges, melon, bananas) and various yummy bread products purchased from the neighbors. As the guests, we were always seated at the formal dining table on the patio, with Mama, the new patriarch, Oscar, (the only brother who is alive and living at the family compound), and sometimes another kid or two. It took a few days and lots of persistence, but I was finally allowed to wash a few dishes one day, and thereafter took every opportunity I could to return to that same sink with the hopes of being able to wash something. In other words, it is sweet and wonderful and overwhelming and exhausting and uncomfortable to get waited on like that for any length of time and we were acutely conscious of opportunities to be able to give back.

One of the ways we helped out during out stay was by driving. Oscar had recently purchased a used truck, but didn't know how to drive yet. In addition, we had our rental car with us. With the rental car and the truck and two licensed drivers, the entire family (save one to run the store) got to go on an adventure to the beach. The coast is about 1 1/2 hours from Pio XII and several of the kids had never seen the ocean. We piled everyone in the two vehicles, along with a table, chairs, and tons of food (naturally) and hit the road.

One of the discernible differences between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is the beach culture. The beach we went to in Nicaragua was fairly developed, with a large parking lot, lined with restaurants, and offering both quad and horse rentals. However, everyone who was there looked as though it was the first time they had ever been to the beach. Though predictably the only gringos, Ian, Sadie and I were also the only ones on the beach wearing bathing suits. The rest of the beach goers were splashing about in the waves in shorts and shirts and sometimes even jeans. Perhaps it was because they weren't regular enough beach goers to bother with the time and expense of buying bathing suits, or perhaps it was for modesty, or maybe sun protection (something the Garcias seemed fairly concerned about - not wanting to get any darker than they already were). At any rate, it was a far cry from the hordes of itty bitty bikini wearing women and shirtless men in Nosara.

Wet, sandy clothing be darned, the Garcia/Britton/Sweeney family had a blast. We played in the water, collected shells, kicked a ball around, ate fruit and rice and salad and barbecued chicken (who but the Garcias could manage to produce an actual salad at the beach?). Ian and I closed our eyes to a few disturbing cultural differences (such as starting the charcoal with burning plastic bags and styrofoam plates) and we all had a wonderful time. Finally, sunburnt and heat exhausted, we piled all the stuff and all the people back in the vehicles and made our way back to Pio XII.

Lunch time!

The next day we piled about 2/3 of the family in the two cars again and went off to Masaya to watch some baseball. We were hoping to catch the big league home team (San Fernando, with a logo exactly like San Francisco), but as it happens there was an amateur game being played that morning in the stadium. We stayed for it anyway, enjoying the free seats behind home plate. The stadium itself is along the waterfront (a lake) of Masaya and beyond the parking lot is a really nice esplanade, or "malecón."

What with the the waterfront access and the various holes in the stadium walls big enough to see the field, I felt almost like I was at AT&T park. There was even a giant bottle over by the bleachers.

In between our car adventures (and car-related errands), we mostly sat and talked. Or, rather, they sat and talked and I sat and sometimes tried to follow the conversation and sometimes just gave up and spaced out (Ian assures me I did very well following the conversations and trying to participate with my broken spanish, but I thought I spent most of the time silent). Sadie, however, was nowhere to be found during these times. In between meals, Sadie was out and about with the kids, playing freeze tag or running around the houses or walking to the park or eating junk food or doing who knows what. All I know is she would occasionally appear, covered with dirt, to ask permission to do something (rare), give me a hug (also rare) or ask if it was time to eat (more likely). At night, she'd fall in bed dirty, full, exhausted and happy, and ready to do it all over again the next day. She was completely confident in her spanish skills and completely comfortable with her place in her newly adopted family.

Hanging out in front of the store on Sunday

We feel extremely blessed to have been taken in so generously and lovingly by the Garcia family. They are an extraordinary group of people in an extraordinary country. During one conversation over a yummy crunchy bread product, Ian and I tried to explain that although Costa Rica had a similar crunchy bread product, it wasn't as flavorful. This, we realized, pretty much sums up our opinion of the difference between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nicaragua has more flavor. I'm not sure why, exactly. Is it perhaps borne of living through so much economic and political turmoil and coming out the other side intact?

In a strange way, I am reminded of the fierce pride that many Oaklanders have for their city - a pride born of seeing the beauty and flavor Oakland has to offer while the rest of the world seems to only be able to focus on the crime and the blight. That dichotomy is what gives places like Oakland much of its spice. Nicaraguans are fiercely proud of their country and all it has to offer including its natural beauty, poets and artists, music and dances, and rich and tumultuous history. Like Costa Rica, Nicaragua can feel very tranquil, but there is also an intensity, an energy, a passion, that I haven't found in Costa Rica.

I'm acutely aware that my apparent need to explain and catalog these differences, to analyze and summarize our experiences, has much to do with the fact that this trip out of Costa Rica was our last. We now have the last 90 day visa that we will need here - our plane tickets have us out of the country and on our way back to Oakland on the 89th day. It is a bittersweet time for us, and one I'm certain will be the topic of several future blog posts.

Until then, thank you from the bottom of our hearts to our adopted Nicaraguan family, the Garcias. Much love from Juan, Catalina and Sadie. Hasta luego.

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