Nicaragua is.... Central America's best-kept secret!

Liz, a good friend of mine from college, writes about her visit to Nicaragua! (I'll add in photos in the next post!)

Here is a little about Liz-  I'm a grad student pursuing my PhD in biology from UC San Diego. I study genetic engineering of algae for making useful products in a "green," efficient way -- everything from biofuels to therapeutic proteins, antibodies, or even vaccines. I'm interested in using biology to engineer products that can detect, prevent, or treat diseases in resource-limited settings. I did my undergrad studies at Johns Hopkins where I met Lindsey on a 3-week trip to Tanzania. We were roommates on the island of Pemba on Tanzania's east coast, and over the next several years we stayed in touch as we both explored many more parts of the world.

Here's how she wound up in Nicaragua- When I found out Lindsey was joining the Peace Corps, I said "let me know where you get stationed and I'm coming!" Having an in-country expert tour guide in Nicaragua was perfect - and close enough to San Diego to take a random week off work and explore a new area of the world to me!

Here's how she describes her trip!
Crazy Airport Stories....?
When I got to Managua, I didn't realize they actually care if you fill in the "in-country address" on the customs form. Since our plan was to sleep in a new city almost every night, I didn't know what address to put so I just left it blank. The customs agent wouldn't let me pass unless I wrote something there. My only savior was my Lonely Planet book in my backpack, where I picked a random hotel name and jotted it in.

Advice on Packing...?
Something I packed and really needed: bug repellent! Though I really only super needed it in Chinandega -- I didn't get a single bug bite until I got there. But once there, I was really glad to have my UltraThon.
Something I packed and did NOT need: my pop-up mosquito sleeping net. Didn't use it once during my trip; the bugs were not bad enough to need anything more than the repellent lotion.
Something I didn't pack and wished I had: Surprisingly, more warm clothes! The mountains were actually chilly. Although it was really refreshing after being in hot sticky Chinandega, I am a major cold wimp.

First Impressions...?
My first impression of how Nicaragua smelled was FRESH! Our first few days were on the islands where the population is not dense and everything is growing, lots of vegetation and flowers everywhere, and it rained in the afternoon every day so everything just smelled clean and healthy. Once we traveled around a bit, of course we came across the normal city smells, but honestly I don't ever remember any offensive smells (a stark departure from my travels in India). Developing countries always smell like diesel fuel in the cities, but I don't mind that in moderate doses.

Hows the (Funny) Money?
A Cordoba is... not as much money as I was expecting! For some reason I had this weird expectation that things would be as cheap in Nicaragua as they were in India (where I worked for about 6 months), and that was not the case. They were still cheaper than American prices of course, but the 20-cent breakfast wasn't really a thing there. Not that I could be upset about a $1 or $2 breakfast... :)

Learn any Nica-isms?
My favorite Nica word would have to be one of the ones Lindsey first introduced me to via the blog of a PCV friend of hers -- fachenta. It means fancy, and it kept coming up all week. It doesn't seem to carry necessarily a positive or negative connotation; it just depended on the context. When we wanted to treat ourselves to a well-deserved nice meal we were being fachenta, but also when someone was a bit flashy or ostentatious they might also be teased for being a bit fachenta

What'd ya see?!?
Considering it was a short one-week trip, I was lucky enough to see SO many different places in Nicaragua. I flew into the capital Managua, where we spent the first night because I got in late at night. First thing the next morning, we took a bus to the ferry station and ferried over to Isla de Ometepe, the twin volcanic islands sticking out of Lake Nicaragua. The scenery was incredible -- the kind of place you would film a movie. Jungles, waterfalls, volcanic hot springs, tropical vegetation, small towns, horses and chickens running free wherever they pleased. On one side of the island the water was calm like a lake, and the other side had huge waves like an ocean. 
After two nights there, we returned to the mainland and traversed the country to Lindsey's site, Chinandega. I got to see several of her worksites as a PCV -- a couple clinics, a maternal health center, a small music school -- and even had time to take a side trip by myself to Leon for some true touristy stuff (museums, cathedrals, souvenir shopping) before returning to Chinandega in time for salsa lessons and a night on the town! And of course we had an afternoon at the beach as well, where I got to meet several other PCVs.
After two nights in Chinandega, we went inland to the mountains a Matagalpa. This is a really cool city, and they happened to be celebrating an anniversary of their founding so they had street vendors and concerts going on most of the weekend. We took a day trip up to a little German-founded commune/ coffee plantation and took a CRAZY horseback ride (see memorable events below ;), and got to see some nightlife in the evenings including live music at a feminist co-op.

Weather wise..Was it a Tropical Paradise?
The weather varied tremendously between all these places. Ometepe was warm during the day but cooled off with afternoon rain both days we were there. Chinandega was just straight up hot (90s while I was there) but I love the heat so not uncomfortable for me! Matagalpa was surprisingly cooler and cloudy (we were actually in the cloud mist much of the time).

Plans for the next trip?
Next time I'm in Nicaragua (and there WILL be a next time someday!), I'd love to visit Granada and kayak between all the islands. I know it's touristy, but the pictures of it just looked so cool. If I was feeling particularly adventurous, it would also be awesome to venture over to the Atlantic coast. I'm intrigued by a country that is half developed (the west coast) and half just left wild (the eastern half).

Eat any Local Delicacies?
What didn't I eat is a better question :)  I decided to not be scared and try everything -- fresh fruit juices, street stand food, uncooked veggies, all the things the travel books warn you against. And for the most part (see next question) I got lucky! The fruits are fantastic, and if you are into salty cheese -- I definitely am -- you can always find a meal you'll love here. My favorite meal was tostones con queso: fried plantain slices topped with cheese. The frescoes (fresh fruit juice) are fantastic as well -- nothing better after a long hike up a volcano!

Get Sick at all?
I only got somewhat sick at the very end of the trip, brought some kind of minor stomach bug home with me and I only popped the Cipro after I had been home for a couple days. But nothing serious, and nothing at all during my week in-country, so I have zero complaints!

So learned Salsa?!
Salsa lessons were awesome! I was way too animated at first -- letting my feet do too much instead of working in the hips -- but I think I really started to get the hang of it at the end. Of course I was just doing the basic steps, none of the twirls and crazy stuff that Lindsey is pro at now. That same evening we went out to a bar and danced some meringue and bachata too. Bachata seemed like a lot of hip-grinding and just follow the male's lead. It was easier for a beginner, but I really liked the challenge of remembering the salsa steps (especially challenging after a few shots of rum and some Tona beers).

y Ahora, Hablas Espanol??
Practicing/learning Spanish was half the fun! 4 weeks before my trip I started taking a beginner's Spanish class for adults. I've been meaning to learn for a long time (I live 15 miles from Mexico, it was embarrassing I didn't speak a word of Spanish. Why did I think taking French in high school was a good idea?!) but this trip was a great incentive to finally take the plunge and sign up. Unfortunately by the time I left for Nicaragua, we'd really only covered the alphabet, "Hi my name is...", "I am from..." and other phrases. I couldn't conjugate verbs or manipulate personal pronouns, so if anyone tried to talk to me (and they did! Cab drivers, souvenir stall vendors, whomever) and used something that didn't fall nicely into the phrases I'd learned, I was a bit lost. Fortunately I almost always had Lindsey with me to help translate, and to ask her incessant questions about the things in my homework (I brought my workbook with me), but on a couple occasions like my side trip to Leon I got to try to tough it out -- pulling out unconjugated verbs and some animated hand gestures to try to get my point across. For the most part, it was surprisingly successful! Though I came back empty handed after trying to purchase a newspaper without knowing the word... but now that's a Spanish word I'll never forget!

Nicaraguan Spanish was FAST (for a beginner, I guess any Spanish sounds fast) and the Central American weird pronoun usage confused me for a bit (vos?) but beyond that I don't know enough to comment too much on it compared to other places' Spanish.

Whats the PCV life like?
Maybe not so much on the scandalous side, but I got some funny/scary/shocking stories from the PC volunteers while I was there... things like some guy losing a finger, to someone falling in a ditch and breaking their leg, to people getting pulled out of other Central American countries because of escalating violence. The kind of stories that would seem a bit hard to believe if they happened under any more normal circumstances, but seem totally believable to happen to a PCV. Honestly, I'm kind of surprised that crazy accidents don't happen more often. I thought of PCV life as kind of chaotic, unpredictable, risky, though I guess that's just a reflection of the stories you hear passed on. It's less exciting to tell stories of a normal everyday work experience. Overall the PCVs I met seemed very down-to-earth about the risks they encountered and well prepared to deal with them. I had also heard stories in the past from other PCVs in various parts of the world about volunteers losing their marbles and going nuts from the isolation and stress of it, but everyone I met seemed to have a good head on their shoulders. Though I guess the whackos aren't the ones meeting up to hang out with other volunteers ;)

What are Nicaragua PCVs like?
The PCVs I met were really interesting, just to hear their life stories and how they ended up there. There were so many different paths and backgrounds; some had come straight from college, others worked for a few years new and then needed something to re-energize them, some were taking a break before going on to more school. It was also cool to see their level of integration into the communities in which they lived and worked. Prior to my trip I had some weird notion that PCVs remain kind of outsiders (I guess because I've never worked in a foreign country for more than 3 months at a stretch, during which I still always felt like a foreigner) and failed to realize that after a year or two, of course they all have close Nicaraguan friends (even boyfriends/girlfriends) and are often very connected to their host families or other families they met at their sites.

Any surprises?
A couple things surprised me about Lindsey's PC experience. One was how much traveling she was able to do, and how many different parts of the country she got to see (either because she had friends stationed at sites in other places, or just traveling with other PCVs). I kind of thought of PCVs as being stuck and somewhat isolated in their site working all the time, but she actually had been able to see so much of the country and get a flavor for many other volunteers' experiences by visiting their sites and staying in close contact with them. Another thing that surprised me was that her living conditions were actually quite comfortable! We could drink the tap water at her place, had Wi-fi, constant water and electricity availability, hop on a bus with actual schedule regularity -- lots of little things that I take for granted in the U.S. but definitely don't take for granted when traveling. It made me think, hey maybe I actually could do this for a couple years someday! Of course that's not to say that everyone is so lucky at their site, but at least it taught me differently than my stereotyped notion that all PCVs are roughin' out in the the boonies.

5 other things that surprised me (not necessarily in order of surprise):
-- How little English people speak- I guess a lot of travelers to Central America already speak some Spanish, and many Nicaraguans seemed surprised that I knew hardly any. This is also in contrast to India, where even in the smaller towns there was always someone who knew at least a little English within a stone's throw of wherever you were.
-- How developed Nicaragua is! I had read so many stats about how it's the 2nd poorest country in our hemisphere, etc, but honestly I was shocked how developed it was, at least in all the places I visited.
-- That all the locals at the beaches wear their full clothing- even while swimming in the ocean. Lindsey had warned me it was a bit weird that we'd be the only people there in bathing suits, and well... she was right, haha.
-- That is was relatively easy to eat vegetarian there- Everyone I know who has traveled in Central and South America told me good luck getting veg food, but honestly it wasn't that difficult at all.
--The presence of music everywhere- It was fantastic, everywhere we went you could hear music coming from a house or a car and all the buses played it. If I had to sum up a quintessential snapshot of my week there, it would be riding in a bus looking at the countryside with the song "Promise" by Romeo Santos and Usher blasting on the bus speakers. I actually heard that song on a local Spanish radio station recently and was instantly mentally back in Nicaragua.

FOND Memories?
My three most memorable experiences were, conveniently, in each of the three different places I visited. The first one would have to be the hike Lindsey and I did up one of the volcanoes on Isla de Ometepe to see a huge waterfall. It was stunning (Lindsey you know our fave pic to put from this one!) and beautiful and really felt like a tropical jungle trek. I got way too excited to see plants and animals that I only knew about from some computer game I used to play as a kid, Amazon Trail. When we came across a line of leaf-cutter ants carrying their fodder back to the nest, I freaked out. Legit jungle territory!
My next most memorable experience totally highlights my unconcealed nerdiness. In Chinandega, Lindsey took me to one of the hospitals/clinics she works at and while she was chatting with the staff I asked if I could see what their medical labs looked like. They were fantastic and gave me a tour and I got to see the equipment and sample handling (all captivating to me, given my interesting in designing devices that can be used in these kinds of settings) and one woman even called me into the microscope room next door to look at a patient blood smear with a malaria parasite in it! How awesome is that!? Not awesome for the patient obviously, but I have read so much about malaria and seen pictures of those blood smears in so many articles that seeing it in real life was incredible.

And finally, the time my heart raced the most during the whole trip was our horseback ride through the coffee plantation near Matagalpa. Lindsey and another PCV friend of hers, Sarah, and I rented horses with bright flashy western saddles (mine was brand new with deep orange leather oil that made its mark on my jeans as an extra souvenir) and a guide led us out of the corral, very nonchalant. We were walking along trails for a bit, taking pictures, admiring the scenery, and then all of a sudden we rounded a corner and all out horses took off at a full gallop! They were all squeezed in tight on the trail, and all three of us are gripping our saddles with one hand (or both!) and laughing hysterically. Eventually the horses slowed back to a walk on their own and then our guide came running up behind us on his horse, laughing too. After this happened several more times it became clear that the horses had been trained to run certain stretches of the trail, as they were obviously taking none of their cues from us, the clueless riders. I consider myself a fairly experienced horseback rider, but this was something totally different! What a thrill -- it was the perfect crazy end to a fantastic trip.

3 questions I still have...?
This is a tough one, I was asking Lindsey questions constantly the whole trip!:
-- I realized I never asked much about higher education in Nicaragua. I know there are some colleges, but what majors do they offer? Are there research labs where you can earn a PhD? Do high-achieving students often go abroad to study? If so, do they return home after or stay living as ex-pats?
-- By the end of a PC stint, do you truly feel fluent in the language or do you still feel like you miss a lot of parts of conversations? All the PCVs I met seemed so comfortable with the language, which is something I can't relate to since I'm not fluent in anything else, but I wonder if that's just because it's "all Greek to me"?
-- Is unemployment very high, and/or are low-wage jobs very low-paying? Skimming back through my travel journal, I noticed a lot of instances where I saw seemingly useless or redundant jobs, like security guards to open a gate at the clinic or the art museum in Leon where an employee followed me from room to room turning light switches on and off as I entered and exited. I couldn't help but think, is the cost of employing someone to do this really cheaper than the cost of the extra electricity for leaving the lights on during open hours? Or are public institutions given strong incentives to make a lot of jobs?

Anything Bad Happen...?
I honestly only had one bad thing happen the whole trip: I absentmindedly left my credit card in an ATM after making my last withdrawal, the day before I flew back to the states. Fortunately I had withdrawn just enough money to get me home, and I cancelled the card before any charges were made. So no loss at all really :)

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