Monday, May 28, 2007

Monkeys, lizards, birds and barnyard animals… Plenty of life on Isla de Ometepe

Not to mention two gigantic active volcanoes that are known to erupt every 30 years or so. Wendy and I set out to explore this wonderful island full of mysteries, nature and opportunities to relax. We decided to stay at a hotel called Charco Verde. The Hotels call to fame is a wonderful beach head as well as a nearby green lagoon rumoured to house the island witch. The island witch is known to come out at night and protect the golden throne of a now-defunct king of the island of Ometepe. We didn’t see either when we visited the lagoon but we did see some pretty birds.

Saturday was spent travelling with our local tour guide, Daniel, who showed us the beautiful Santo Domingo beaches, the petroglyphic Maya art near the Magdalene Farm as well as the city of Altagracia. We also saw the Eye of the river where an eye-shaped spring feeds an important river on the island. No one quite understands how the spring gets its water but it has never run dry. If you swim in the eye, you feel water coming up. I imagine it has something to do with all the volcanic activity going on around this island. We swam and swam some more in this beautiful, cool, green island.

Sunday, we slept in and I slept an amazing 10 hours! This has not been done since I started at Schulich. After a hearty breakfast, Wendy and I sat out to explore a nature trail near the hotel. We saw lizards, birds, plenty of insects and most important, great picture scenes of the local coast and the Madena Volcano. Upon our departure of island on Sunday, we had an amazing shot of the La Conception (second and larger volcano on the island). We’ll be back in three weeks with Jessica and Wendy’s cousin and husband. We expect to hike to see the San Ramon Waterfalls on the Madena Volcano. They are said to be 120 metres high. Ometepe is a little slice of natural paradise in Nicaragua… soon to be overrun by tourists so make your way there quickly!

Monday, May 21, 2007

From Masaya to Masatepe to Granada… and back to Managua

As I stood caught between passengers in the Transporte Urbano de Collectivo de Managua, I now realize why I take the taxi every day to get from my house to school and then to work and pay the equivalent of $4 daily cab fair given the inconvenience of taking the public bus. But the public bus service between cities can be quite good… And for $1 to get to Granada, Masatepe or Masaya, you can hardly complain. So, this blog will be devoted to public transportation in Nicaragua, its many facets and the interesting and beautiful places in can bring us.

Given I’ve talked about taxies in previous blogs, I’ll start with a trip I made with a colleague of mine from work called Wendy last weekend. Wendy has lived in Managua since January 2007 and had not taken any public buses until last weekend. I was here in my second week, green as any Canadian worker in Nicaragua can be. We chanced it and made our way to the bustling Mercado Roberto Huembes to catch our “expreso” bus to Masaya. It’s a chaotic bus station but follows some general rules and guidelines. For example, if you ask directions to one of the porters, a tip, called “propina” in Spanish is required for the porter and his tag-along friend. The tip is not too onerous. 5 cordobas (about $0.33) for him and another 5 cordobas for his friend. Once you have found your bus, well, it’s not a greyhound. It’s actually your old bus you took when you were in elementary school. Seriously, it’s that bus… the same one. You see, there is a traffic of used buses that goes on between the USA and Canada and most of Central America (and I imagine the rest of Latin America as well). You still have some buses with the last owners inscriptions: “St. Patrick High School” or “St.Francis Catholic Regional Elementary School”. But some, thankfully, have been painted over in all the colours of the rainbow. Let´s call it eye candy for the masses.

Okay, back to our trip to Masaya. So, now we have taken the right bus. We are sitting in our seats. The bus slowly fills with people… and salespeople! They sell everything! The daily newspaper, chicklet gum, every pastry you can imagine, chips, coca-cola, and of course, “agua, agua, agua”. If you want anything, just sit back and let the world come by you. Buses leave on a very reliable schedule. Arrival times vary. If you have the Michael Schumacher Bus driver, expect to arrive in record time, if not with a few heart palpitations. If you are lucky enough to have Mr. I Like to See the Flowers Grow as I drive. Expect that time to double, see triple and sometimes quadruple. Most bus drivers are somewhere in between those extremes (please note that taxi drivers also follow this exact taxonomy).

Okay, so now Wendy and I are enjoying our ride to Masaya, a bustling trade and crafts center near Managua. As we make our way, the bus stops intermittingly to let in more passengers… and more… and more… until every last inch of breathable air in the bus is taking up with perspiring passengers eager to regain their natural shapes once they leave the enclave of the bus. Actually, it’s not that bad (only Transporte Urbano Collectivos are that bad). Inter-city buses are much less crowded although stepping on other people’s feet is quite a common occurrence. So, we made it safe and sound to Masaya and discovered a great crafts market that doesn’t sell trinkets but actually good quality craft stuff. And the people aren’t pushy. It’s tourist souvenir purchasing heaven. Will have to come back. Masaya other call to fame is a great big lake next to a great big volcano. Don’t expect to swim there after years of industrial waste being pumped into the water bed. It is off limits to anyone not wanting to grow a third arm.

This weekend was even more eventful in terms of public transportation. I was invited by my family… yes, I am now being introduced as the long-lost son of my new-father. So, Oscar Senior and his wife Estella invited us to their country home in Masatepe. Oscar Junior (Oscar’s son… I know, I got confused with that one too) and his girlfriend, Jody, and I took the Transporte Urbano Collectivo to Mercado Roberto Huembes to take a micro-bus (a large van that somewhat comfortably seats 15 people). Unfortunately, the line for taking the micro-bus appeared long so we took the local bus to Masatepe (see explanation of the big yellow buses above). Unfortunately for us, what should have taken 35 minutes with the micro-bus (express to Masatepe) stopped at every corner of Managua, Masaya and everything in-between before dropping us off in Masatepe 2 hours later. I did get to discover places I’ll probably never have the chance to visit again. That was nice.

Last night was spent in the very cool and beautiful green landscape of Masatepe. Unfortunately for me, the open windows let not only the nice cool breeze in but also the drunks, the dog barks and the crazy roosters that seem to not understand when day-light occurs. They like to practice their “cock-a-doodle-do" several hours before it’s necessary. After plenty of coffee this morning and a nice tour of Oscar’s plantation (which grows amongst other fruits, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, bananas and many other fruits), we made it to the Masatepe bus station. We got there just in time to take the “local” bus to Granada. Although Granada is about 20 km from Masatepe, we took the scenic route and make it there in under an hour and a half. Once in Granada, I know understood why every foreign tourist to the country and mostly every Nica has visited this diamond in the rough. Granada is not only the oldest city in the Americas (it was founded by Christopher Columbus some 400 years ago), it is a colonial jewel with amazing architecture that has been kept up with the times and great tourist infrastructures I’ll be back!

Oscar, Jody and I lounged in some cafes, trying out the different frappacino’s before making our way to Nicaragua Lake, the largest lake in Central America and home to one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful sights, Ometepe island (two majestic volcanoes on a tiny island in the middle of the lake… read next weeks entry for full details). We negotiated a fee for a one-hour boat ride to some of the 365 islets near Managua. For your information, there is a somewhat active volcano about 10 km from Granada. It dominates the landscape. Oscar told me that these islets were created by a mega eruption. I didn’t understand. He said, well, the eruption was so powerful, it sent liquid volcanic rocks over 10 kms into the lake creating these islets. Glad I wasn’t there when that happened! However, very rich people do appreciate their small and secluded size. There are 1-2 houses on each islet and have huge, see monstrously big villas on them. This is your own island for a small price (one was for sale for US$350k… haven’t you always wanted to own your very own island? You could create your own city there and charge your own taxes?... well, not quite). So, my last segment of my bus story is my first micro-bus experience. Clean, airy and comfortable. However, micro-buses are known for one thing and one thing only in Nicaragua… Their speed! We had a young Michael Schumacher at the wheel and what took us roughly 3 and a half hours to do with the local buses took us about 30 minutes with the micro-bus. But it sure was fun! So, that ends another instalment of Serge’s Nicaraguan adventures. Join us next time for all the exciting stories from Ometepe Island.

More pictures at Serge in Masaya and Masatepe.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Interesting facts on Nicaragua... part 1

Answers I found in Nicaragua
1) Did you ever wonder what happened to those old yellow school buses after they had broken down and where spewing black ash into the atmosphere? Well, they get bought by the local Managua Bus Service, get refurbished, a door gets added on the back way and the emergency door in the back gets pad-locked… and it continues to spew black ash into the atmosphere. Recycle, reuse… reduce, well, maybe not that much.
2) Did you ever wonder how you recycle when there is no formal recycling service? Well, I found out the hard way… at 5:00 AM, when the local “recycler” comes with a steel bar and hits everything noisy to awake everyone to his presence called out for “paper, aluminum, anything he can sell for scraps”.
3) Did you ever wonder what 42 degrees with no air feels like? Well, don’t go do your weekly shopping trip to the super market on a Sunday afternoon in May (hottest month in Nicaragua) to find out. I must have lost 2 litres of body fluid after going out for less than 20 minutes.
4) Did you ever wonder what 1,000 tiny ants looked like? Well, if you do want to find out, leave your cereal box open in Nicaragua to find out… Yuk! Oh well, I hear ants have a lot of protein in them. Ummm.
More fun facts to come… promise!

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Swimming with the dolphins in San Juan del Sur

Tuesday was a busy day... I woke up, made it the main drag near my place, hailed a taxi, bartered myself a ride to Seminole Plaza Hotel where Fred Wall is staying. Fred is the president of the Mi Crédito board (where I will be working for the next three months). Wendy Koch, another MEDA employee joined us, and we met up with Nelson, our MEDA driver. We then spent the next two hours driving down to San Juan del Sur, a beach town near the Costa Rican border. Once there, and after filling our tummies with lunch, we went to the docks to take a boat given Fred wanted to see a property he bought last year near the ocean and south of San Juan del Sur. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy a great boat ride in the hot sun. We got to see dolphins swim with us and jump over three metres in the air! There were even giant sea turtles swimming around. Thousands lay their eggs on the Nicaraguan beaches every year. They are very beautiful. Once Fred had taken numerous photos of his property from the sea, we took a well deserved break from our busy day and docked in a private beach with no one but ourselves, swam for an hour and then enjoyed the hot sand and sun for another before returning to town by boat. Although it was a long day (we had to drive another two and a half hours to make it back to Managua), it was a great day and made me realize that Nicaragua is more than the dirty, bustling city of Managua. It has plenty of secrets and treasures to share with the adventurous traveller.