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travel

A Three-Hour Tour

True story: about three years ago, on some occasion when we were staying in a hotel–probably during a gloomy soul-suck of a February–we turned on the television to enjoy a bit of that glamorous thing called cable. On a very fine network, one devoted to aspirational lifestyles, house flipping, and hanging bamboo “art” in Vermont teenage boys’ bedrooms, we encountered a little-known program called International House Hunters.

The couple on the show were looking to buy a place in…

Nicaragua.

Before that seminal half-hour, Byron and I had never realized the beaches of Nicaragua were, um, there. Abstractly, of course, we realized Central American nations had coastline. However, the front parts of our brains had never registered that going to a beach in Nicaragua could be something around which people built vacations.

At some point during that show, perhaps during one of the seven commercial breaks, we looked at each other and agreed, “Hey, how about a beach vacation in Nicaragua some day?”

The realization of that agreement is currently happening.

Indeed, the second half of our trip to Nicaragua is all about relaxation and hanging at the beach. To achieve these goals, we took a taxi from the city of Leon to the fishing village of Las Penitas.

Pretty much, the village comprises native fisherfamilies, Canadian expats running restaurants, and leathery guys in dreadlocks holding a beer in one hand and a surf board in the other.

Quite purposefully, we decided to stay on the Pacific side of Nicaragua rather than transporting to the Caribbean coast. Our reasoning was partially that the trip would be more relaxing if we stayed in one area and partially because EVERYONE goes to the Caribbean coast for New Year’s. And crowds be big bummers for introverts who enjoy few things more than a good word puzzle.

So we’re spending four nights at one of the few Nicaraguan-run, Nicaraguan-frequented hotels in this area. Just out the door is the Pacific–where we can swim after the traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs, pancakes, sausage, and fresh juice; then, a few hours later, after lunch, we bodysurf again, getting a true feeling for the changing moods of the waves as related to low versus high tides.

During these days of chilling, we have had only one structured activity: a tour of the nearby nature preserve, Isla Juan Venado. The word “venado” means “deer,” so we toured, you got it: John Deer Island.

To be more specific, we spent a few hours in a small boat, chugging down a 22 km estuary (we only covered 8 km) before taking a short walk on the island itself, which is where six local families have dedicated themselves to preserving the turtle population and ecosystem at large. In this refuge, there is actually no control, oversight, or police enforcement of what’s been promised by the government on paper, so this small group of families is banding together to run whatever interference they can against the nature-destroying habits of the community at large.

A member of one of these families was our guide, Antonio.

From the moment we met him, we had no worries that he’d be uptight.

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Our tour started at 2 p.m., low tide, so Antonio had a couple of his guys on hand to wade the boat through the shallows, into the estuary.

Antonio’s guys were all I could have hoped for, as was Byron’s back sweat.

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For several hours, Paco and I sat behind Byron and Allegra, all of us marveling at the skill with which Antonio and his son, Alan, spotted wildlife while also navigating the boat. While we toodled along, they saw stuff in the branches that I couldn’t see at a dead standstill, squinting through my long camera lens.

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Random factoid: Antonio has nine kids.

His dad’s family had 25.

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Putt-putting our way down the estuary, stopping every few minutes to back up the boat and look carefully at a bird, a spider, an iguana, we were at peace.

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I’ll be honest, though: by the second hour, our rear ends were starting to ache.

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During our time in the boat, we saw Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Sandpipers, Mangrove Swallows, a Great Black Hawk, Pygmy Kingfishers, Royal Terns, Green Terns, a Yellow-Crown Night Heron, Blue Herons, Kiskadees, Boat-Billed Night Heron, Tri-Color Herons, Tiger Herons, Black Skimmers, plus others, but I’m not going to list them because birder people are a special subset of Internet troll, and the more I try to act knowledgeable about birds, the more they’re going to need to shout that a Green-Legged Wacky Doodle would never migrate through Nicaragua this time of year, and, well, I have too much rum to drink to have time for bird shouters.

So just look at the pictures, wouldya, and simply enjoy the fact that birds, no matter their names or traceable habits, are glory made manifest?

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At one point, as my gaze slipped down the roots of a red mangrove, admiring how they reach for the water, I was startled: inside the root system, as though held in a cage, was a man’s head.

Truly.

The rest of his body was beneath the water, save for his hands, which were busily peeling bright orange crabs off the roots.

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Three of us hoped we’d also see a crocodile or two on this tour. Antonio offered us the chance to go a couple kilometers further down the estuary, to the spot where they might be lolling.

I wanted to yell, “HELL, YES!” but Paco, all along, had not wanted to see a crocodile, and since–after the volcano incident–we’ve decided to listen to Paco’s instincts, we didn’t press the matter.

We can see a crocodile next time we come to Nicaragua to the small fishing village of Las Penitas and take a tour of the mangrove-lined estuary.

Or, like, somewhere else.

What we all did agree upon was stopping at the island where the turtles lay their eggs and where a few dedicated workers are overseeing their safety.

As we hiked to the place where the turtle project is happening, this woman passed us.

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She and some others were cutting down the tall grasses on this island–introduced by conquistadors who wanted something to feed their cattle, except then they never got the cattle there, so for centuries the grasses grow wild, unchecked–to use for repairing the roofs of their houses.

A few minutes beyond the grass-cutters was the turtle place.

The workers who dedicate their time and efforts to protecting the turtles don’t have it all bad, as their digs indicate.

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One nice guy dug into one of several bags of sand and extracted an egg. Apparently, each bag of sand contains a different hatch. The egg he let us hold had a small crack in it; the worker thought the turtle would be out by the next day.

A really big part of me wanted the turtle to bust through as I was holding its egg. I would have named it Yertle Murtle, Most Excellent Turtle.

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Then it was time to hop back in the boat, let Alan rev her up, and speed back to the village. As Alan threaded the estuary, dodging overhanging branches, rocks in the water, and curves, I leaned over to Paco and said, “Now THIS would be a great course in MarioKart: Mangrove Mayhem!”

Just as we neared the village, Antonio pointed out a few more birds, this time pelicans–and I know they’re pelicans, so shut up, you know-it-all birders–which were the perfect capstone birds to a wonderful, tweety, feather-filled few hours.

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Before we paid him and bid him goodbye, Antonio closed our afternoon with a rousing speech about how sad the future of Isla Juan Venado is. Many locals are only interested in stripping it of its resources, and Antonio explained that the island is also used sometimes as a place for boats with cocaine coming from Colombia to stop and replenish their fuel.

He pounded his heart a few times as he spoke, emphasizing that he and others needed to continue to care if a place as rare and beautiful as the mangrove estuary is to maintain its health for future generations.

We all have heard pronouncements of environmental doom so frequently that it’s easy to let them slide through our ears.

But then I think about the neon belly of the iguana, sunning itself on a tree. And I think about the delicate beauty of the Mangrove Swallows, like a treasured tea set. And I think about the way flocks of pelicans swoop together over the waves of the Pacific every morning, catching fish and making us freeze in our tracks, eyes to the sky.

And I am so glad for the Antonios of the world.
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…and the fact that he’s not alone. He’s got Alan. He’s got his other eight children. He’s got a few other families in the village who understand the importance of preservation.

And, of course, he’s got his guys.

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Not for the Faint of Heart or Soft of Skull

wp-1451256884187.jpgLooks like Byron’s playing dress-up.

Is he a coal miner?

Hobo?

George Michael circa 1983?

Or is there another explanation for the state of his face?

There sure is. Someone did this to him.

His name is Denis, and he was assisted by a compact second named Henri.

Denis and Henri led Byron–led all of us, plus a crew of others–up and then down the sides of the Cerro Negro volcano.

What’s bizarre is that we paid them money to do this to us.

By the time it was over, the lenses in our glasses were scratched, Paco had fought back the tears threatening to fall from his woebegone blue eyes, all our orifices were plugged with grit (note to self: form Grrrl band called Plugged with Grit), and I had experienced a moment suspended upside down in the air during which I felt certain I’d be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair.

There aren’t many experiences in life that cause me to pronounce “I’ll never do that again,” but sledding down the side of a volcano is now one of them.

Once was more than enough.

It started when a nice guy in a van picked us up at our hotel. Then we were taken to the main office where we were corraled with a group of other tourists who thought being able to say “I sledded down a volcano” would impress the girls they were trying to pick up in bars.

That’s certainly why I did it.

As we all loaded into a bigger van for the one-hour ride to Cerro Negro, I should have been practicing saying in Spanish, “Is there an optician in the house? My glasses are broken.”

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The woman in front of Paco, the one with the cool Chinese character tattoos down her neck, opted to snowboard down the volcano. On the ride home, she told me she’d been very impressed with the flip I did and couldn’t believe I was walking. So maybe that’s my take-away from the experience: I am able to wow tattooed lesbians. It’s a very specialized gift.
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I have to admit that when we first pulled up to the volcano, I did gulp audibly. All along, Paco had been saying he didn’t want to do this. In the parking lot, he looked at the hillside and fought back tears, his soft cheeks flushing red. We assured him that one of us would be happy to hike back down with him, if he got up to the top, took a look at it, and really, really knew he didn’t want to do it. I brag about him every day, but still, I don’t brag about him enough: he’s a super smart, super intuitive kid. He knew.
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The guide insisted on taking a group photo. Such documentation could be helpful later, if bodies needed to be identified.
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Paco’s body language reveals nothing, right? We each had to carry our own board on the one-hour hike to the top. Byron carried two, his and Paco’s. When the hiking scene started getting truly gnarly, I understood that tenet of evolution about the benefits of choosing a hardy mate. Allegra and I could hardly handle our own boards once the gale-force winds started twirling us in their blender, much less two.
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The hike started hard, but, like, normal hard. Then it got REALLY hard–steeper, looser footing, and a crazy blustery wind that surprised even the guide. As Paco later said, “As soon as that wind started, I knew there would be a blog post coming out of it.”
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I actually loved the hiking, Even though I was sweating and panting and trying not to twist anything, it was good, honest, tromping work. Plus: the views!
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I want to type loudly that, much to Paco’s credit, he completed that hike up the loose volcanic gravel, in the heat and then with the loco wind. We all have things that challenge us, and for Allegra, this hike was fair game-difficult, but something that she could handle, even when she was staggering sideways, trying not to let her board be ripped put of her two-handed grip. But for Paco? This was a huge stretch. For the rest of his life, he should be proud that he dug down and found the strength to do it.
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This was during the part where we could even consider taking photos. Shortly after this, things changed, and a farm house from Kansas whirled by.
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Sometimes when I’m trying to put my phone away, I accidentally take a picture of my foot, and then later I realize it does a good job of showing the terrain.
So about those winds. This guy is just trying to walk and hang on to his board.
So about those winds. This guy is just trying to walk and hang on to his board. You can also see the brightly colored backpack he is wearing. We each had one, and inside was a totally rad uniform we had to put on once we reached the peak. You know, where we were the most exposed. We could not stand up to dress, or we would be blown over, and our boards would be snatched away by the winds. So we put on our jumpsuits, safety goggles, and gloves while holding down our boards with our rear ends. Good times.
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Allegra’s ponytail was an effective windsock.
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Eventually, looking like minions, oompaloompas, or members of Devo, everyone was ready to queue up. Paco was still sure he did not want to sled down–even though our training told us we could control our speed by digging our heels in and leaning forward to go slowly or leaning back to go faster. I asked the guide if Paco and I could just hike down the same route everyone was using for sledding. The kind guide, damn him, asked me Paco’s name, called him over, and took off, on foot, halfway down the slope. There, he planted the kid’s board like a bench, sat him down, and gave him prime viewing of the last few sledders. The two of them hung out together, united in sanity.
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As my turn neared, I considered the fact that the incline was 45 degrees in the bottom stretch. I considered how I hate speed. I assured myself I could dig my heels in, and it would be fine. I should have reminded myself that magical realism was born in Latin America.
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Allegra wasn’t actually doing the thing called enjoying herself. Neither was I when a wasp slipped inside my jumpsuit and stung me on the shoulder.
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The guide was so calm when he explained that a speed of 100 km/be was possible on a board in the lower stretch of the hill.
After Paco was halfway down the hill, hanging out with the guide, it was time for us to do this thing. Allegra went first. As I've noted, the girl is a real charger, not one to get rattled. She almost started crying as she tussled with the sliding loose rock as she attempted to get in her board. A few minutes later, when it was my turn, I experienced the same frustration and had a clear moment of gratitude that my legs are fit and powerful. Had I been any less of a beast, I'd be up there still, shouting that volcanoes spew magma but suck ass.
After Paco was halfway down the hill, hanging out with the guide, it was time for us to do this thing. Allegra went first. As I’ve noted, the girl is a real charger, not one to get rattled. She almost started crying as she tussled with the sliding loose rock as she attempted to get in her board. A few minutes later, when it was my turn, I experienced the same frustration and had a clear moment of gratitude that my legs are fit and powerful. Had I been any less of a beast, I’d be up there still, shouting that volcanoes spew magma but suck ass.
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And there she went, slowly, in complete control. This is how her entire ride went. She was not amused.
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Then I went. There are no pictures, only a report from Paco, there at the midpoint, that I was yelling “Whoa!” as I went by. From start to finish, my board and I screamed down the volcano. In the last pitch, the 45 degree part, I was desperate to slow down since all efforts to dig my heels in had been futile, so I leaned forward. That slight shift in weight at that angle and speed was nearly the death of me. In a hair of a second, I went over the front of the board, flipped legs to the sky while landing on my head, my spine compressing, and visions of paralysis streamed through the cinema of my mind. When I landed on my tush, I didn’t know what had happened or if I could move. After what felt like minutes, some of the people from our group called out, asking if I needed help. I did. Allegra, who had started her run a few minutes before me, had not yet reached the bottom, so she had no idea that anything had happened. Thus, it was a circle of strangers who surrounded me and listened to me say, repeatedly, “I just need my glasses. Can you look around and find my glasses? I can’t see without them.” Then, doi, I realized they were up on my forehead, under the shattered remnants of my safety goggles. One of the nose pieces had disappeared, and the frame was bent. I will need to order a new lens when we get home, but I had my glasses. Kind people helped me until Allegra and then the guide and Paco got there. My forehead had a few cuts, so the guide used the water in his bottle to have me wash my face four or five times, and then he sprayed me down with an antibiotic. I was so glad it was over.
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An hour later, back at our lovely hotel, the kids had some genuine fun, and I spent a few restorative hours on a deck chair–clearly necessary because when the van dropped us off, I was confused as to why they were letting us off at the wrong place, which they weren’t, and when we went into the lobby, I wondered why my family was acting like this was our lobby. Each of us had a long shower (when I was cleaning the black off my nostrils, I probed around inside and found at least five rocks. Seriously.), and we all came back to sorts, and Byron watched me anxiously for the rest of the day for signs of a concussion…and although if ever there was a day when I wanted a stiff drink, it was this one, I listened to my beau and refrained.
After all, he was kind enough to use his multiplier to straighten my frames before then chopping up an ear plug to provide my nose with some cushioning. Even more, he nodded agreeably each time I noted, "Sledding down a volcano? Now there's something I never need to do again."
After all, he was kind enough to use his multiplier to straighten my frames before then chopping up an ear plug to provide my nose with some cushioning. Even more, he nodded agreeably each time I noted, “Sledding down a volcano? Now there’s something I never need to do again.”
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Cocinar

There is a women’s cooperative in Leon, Nicaragua, dedicated to reviving and passing forward some dying indigenous history.

Specifically, they are working to preserve ancient recipes. First, they draw upon their collective knowledge of recipes, and then they teach each other. After that, they open their homes so that they can teach interested parties, often tourists.

Byron, a devoted cook, booked us a morning of learning from a woman who is part of this cooperative. Physically, he was almost acquiver with the anticipation. For him, to stand in someone’s kitchen in another country and learn what they do feels like a true Christmas.

Our lesson started when Dona Flor came to our hotel and picked us up. She spoke no English; we have limited Spanish.

With the “no worries” stroll of a Latin American, she led us to a nearby market, a crammed jumble of a place–as all good markets should be–the entrance to which we would never have noticed, had she not led us in.

At the first stall, Dona Flor bought cheese. In the traditional Nicaraguan breakfast, this cheese is fried. For the recipe she taught us, it was grated.
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Next, she bought some peppers.

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Do you see lemons?
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No, you don’t. ‘Cause ain’t none.
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Can Paco find a lemon? Paco cannot. Find none lemon.
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Oh, you can look and look, Waldo, but you will never find even uno limon.
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None lemons in hand, but plenty of other good stuff purchased, Dona Flor shepherded us onto a bus to her neighborhood. Not only was it properly rundown and creaky, central casting had been kind enough to send over a guy holding a live chicken.
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Once we reached Dona Flor’s part of town, we again followed in her thrall. At one point, Byron wondered aloud, “How would I say ‘shady side of street’?” But then, with that “no worries” stroll of hers, Dona Flor naturally migrated shadeward.
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When we got to her house, Dona Flor called out to her Mami to come open the gate. Dona Flor is 58; her husband died two years ago; she has two sons, one 28 and one 19. The 19-year-old is the father of her first grandchild. All of this, I learned during the bus ride. I don’t speak Spanish. In other words, World, go somewhere and don’t fret if you don’t speak the language. Just be ready to smile a lot and use huge gestures. Works for me.
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Once inside, we were seated at the dining room table and given cold water, which may have saved Paco from an early death. Kid gets hot.
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While we drank cold water, and Dona Flor bustled around in the kitchen, pulling out pans, prepping for us to enter, we listened to the sweet mewls and cries of her one-month-old grandbaby. I felt strongly that the baby wanted me to hold it. No one else seemed to speak Baby, though. They just thought she was crying.
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LET THE COOKING COMMENCE!

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The entree was a kind of stew called Indio Viejo (Old Man). Its base is a bunch of fresh masa diluted with water and beef stock. To start the dish, sautee some onions and peppers in oil. Then run out to the field and pluck some fresh masa off the nearest Masa Tree.
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Dona Flor’s kitchen is looong. I love the industrial scale hanging from the ceiling. I also am enough of an animal that I enjoyed the complete lack of dish soap or a cloth or sponge as she washed up a few plates.
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Remember the part about sauteeing onions and peppers? DUH.
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The fresh masa came in a plastic sack; there were about five palm-sized balls that Dona Flor smooshed up with some paprika, for color, before adding crema and beef broth.
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While the stew thickened, Dona Flor showed us how to make tosterones, which are twice-fried plantains. Can one ever fry a plantain too much? we mused, philosophically.
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After the initial frying, the plantains come out of the oil, put under a piece of plastic cling film, and smashed with a drinking glass. Allegra’s massive upper body strength overwhelmed one or two of the weaker medallions.
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Everyone took a turn at plantain smashing, for, as the old adage goes, “The family that smashes plantains together remains silent during long taxi rides together.”
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This is where Paco was sitting while the rest of us shredded beef and smashed plantains. He had to drink more water. Were you paying attention before? KID GETS HOT.
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I feel like we haven’t really stared enough at smashed plantains yet. So here.
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After a second frying of the plantains, the tosterones were done. At that same time, the Indio Viejo stew was also done (shredded beef and grated cheese were added midway in the process). Why, yes, that is fresh papaya/orange juice you see! All of it was so fantastic that it kicked even Paco’s sweaty softness into recovery.
Once we’d finished eating and paid Dona Flor, she walked us back to the corner to catch the bus back to our part of the city. Once it arrived, she gave a good shout to the muchacho handling the money, telling him to be sure we got off near the university. Friends, I kissed her goodbye. I did.
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I mean, the food was good and all, but you know what really restored Paco’s spirits?
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And now we have this recipe, written in Dona Flor’s hand, recording a recipe used by her great-great-great-great-a-hundred-great-grandmothers. It is the best possible souvenir.
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Faces of Nicaragua

As a family who doesn’t draw energy from the holidays but twirls with hands to the sky at the notion of taking a trip, the choice was easy:

we flew to Nicaragua for Christmas and New Year’s.

So far, we’ve eaten plantain chips and yucca; tried the famous seven-year rum; felt the bottoms of our feet chafe raw as they swell and sweat in the humidity; seen both tin shantytowns and a multi-story galleria; eased our bodies into the cooling blue of the swimming pool; lost and won at Farkle; sat dully for two hours as we ate fantastic steaks delivered to our table with terrible service; maneuvered a shopping cart through a standing-room-only grocery store on Christmas Eve; gotten dizzy from seven different salsa songs playing from seven different windows simultaneously; and enjoyed the colonial architecture in the city of Leon.

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Of course, for me, staring at facades affords a limited type of pleasure. Given an hour in a central square, a camera, and a chance to gawk at every pair of sandals, every cutie baby, every ice cream seller trying to make a few cordobas, I’ll take people watching any day.

Always, everywhere, it’s the people.1451098057674

The first night, when we flew into Managua, the shuttle for our hotel picked us up and transported us to the place where we could finally let our bodies–exhausted at 11 p.m. after a 2:40 a.m. wake-up–collapse.

The bell boy, a compact man of sixty, got his instructions from the woman at the reception desk, grabbed two of our three big bags in his hands, and marched us over, through, around, up, around again, and down before plopping us in front of a door. Looking at us, he gestured “You have the key?”

Key? No, no one had given us a key.

Sighging deeply, he grabbed the two heavy bags again, retraced the route back to the desk, and asked for clarification. Hands waved in the air, and he nodded in understanding.

Grabbing our bags, he led us off in the complete opposite direction, depositing us in front of a different door.

No, wait, what? Wrong room again.

The parade of us, led by a confused man trying to do right, wound back to the reception desk.

More pointing and hand waving. OHHHH! THAT room? OOOHHH!

Naturally, the correct room, which we landed at on our third attempt, required a climb up a set of stairs to get to the main door and then another climb up a second set once inside.

Somehow, despite how intimate we’d all become during our meanders around the property, he managed to ghost out the door before Byron or I could slip him the sweaty tips we’d been clutching.

Ah, people.

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The next day, at a gas station near our hotel, a station with an ATM inside of it, the kids and I perused the snack aisle and marveled at the bright, happy packaging. As I took out my phone to snap a picture of a package of cookies that promised to pack a real “ponch,” I saw a guy paying for gas look at me like I’d escaped from the zoo.

People.

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Later that day, during a two-hour shuttle ride from Managua to Leon, our friendly driver said a few words to us and then settled in to the road. We four craned our necks this-a-way and that for the duration, and I reflected more than once that I love it when people can be quiet together.

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When we arrived in Leon, we were greeted with great hospitality by the young woman working the front desk of our next hotel. As we waited to complete the check-in process, we sat in big stuffed chairs next to the foliage-full courtyard. Our hostess asked if we wanted coffee, and when I panted “Yes” and followed her to the pot, I saw that there was no cream or milk, which is a fundamental component of my java happiness.

When I asked this young woman if milk was possible, she said yes but then looked hard at me for a minute, wondering how stern was my stuff, telegraphing a certain concern: “But it will be from the refrigerator, so it will be very, very cold.”1451097318467

As we completed checking in at the Leon hotel, the proprietor arrived and came in to say hello. His glasses frames’ steel, rectangular, assertive funkiness marked him as European.

Indeed, he and his wife left France for Nicaragua three years ago. When I asked if they would ever return to live in France, he said, “My wife might, but I won’t,” thereby telling me more about his marriage than is usually gleaned in the first sixty seconds.

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As I continued to chat with the proprietor, I asked him why he would never return to France. His response:

“1. The president
2. The French”

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In the central square of Leon, a sweet-seeming man, wanting to practice the English he is studying at the university, attempted to engage Byron in conversation. The kids and I actively dodged getting involved, leaving poor Byron to riddle out whether “daughter” actually meant “wife” and wonder if he had suddenly landed on a Utah compound.

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Every time we enter or exit our hotel, the front gate is locked or unlocked for us by the woman working reception. The key hangs on the back of the big wooden door that can be closed at night. The whole system is so Old World charming that I’m thinking of looking for whalebone so I can start wearing stays.

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The Dutch-looking couple at the supermarket just beat a rundown-feeling Paco and Jocelyn to two of the last three cold bottles of Coke Zero.

Dutch-looking people are always exactly where I don’t want them to be.

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A Canadian guy who drank too much on Christmas Eve and paid too much for a bar of Hershey’s chocolate, if you ask him, which we didn’t, approached us as we sought a break from the sun on a shady bench.

I almost applauded when he used the most “oooo” vowel sound ever in “Google” and then ended the sentence with “eh?”

I was left feeling he wouldn’t have taken two of the last three bottles of cold Coke Zero, had he seen Paco and me wilting our way towards relief.

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The same waiter who paid us no attention for the two hours while we sat at a table in his section certainly had a full 12 minutes to discuss wine and the menu with the three young travelers who came in an hour after us.

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The filet mignon wrapped in bacon and topped with mushroom sauce, served with lassitude by the negligent waiter, was superb.

He’s lucky I do not take an excellent steak lightly.

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The British couple staying in the room above us appears to enjoy a rousing round of ten-pin bowling at 8 a.m., based on the loud rolling sounds echoing across their floor.

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When I’ve asked the night clerk at the reception desk for some ice, she disappears into the Employees Only kitchen, and after a twenty second silence, I hear her using what sounds like a pick axe to attack the glacier they apparently keep in there.

With the triceps she’s built up from the job, I daresay she could be a fearsome serial killer.

Good thing she weighs 80 pounds. Gives us a fighting chance.

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The Italian hotel guests spend, truthfully, six hours a day in their teensy suits, lounging next to the pool. Clearly, they need their fix of sun before returning to the gloomy skies of Tuscany.

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A woman who runs a “You think of it, we’ll fry it” joint a couple of doors down from the hotel was hanging out on the sidewalk, a boiling vat of oil doing its job on some plantains, when she tried to call our family in to eat. We smiled and kept moving, at which point she shifted into a technique wherein she labeled what had just walked by her door:”Mami! Papi! Ninos!”

Nailed it.

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The daddies in Nicaragua are very on the job with their kids. While the mothers hang off to the side or totter along in tandem on five-inch heels, it’s Papi who carries, chases, feeds tiny mouthfuls, plays hide-n-seek, and puts his hands on the baby.

So I guess what I’m saying is: hey, ladies, go ahead and have unprotected sex with a Nicaraguan guy.

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After shouting my order over the counter at a busy mom-n-pop store, the sweet mom, shoulder-to-shoulder with Pop, told me how much we owed her. To me, it sounded like “Some number, maybe a four but possibly a five at the end.” So I looked to Byron, who’s had some Spanish, but he hadn’t heard her. Then I looked to Allegra and Paco, both of whom are taking Spanish, and repeated what I’d heard. Since it had essentially become a game of Telephone, Allegra could only take a stab at what the cost was.

Still unsure, I turned back to Mom and Pop and held up my fingers, “A six and then a four?”

I was laughing, Mom was laughing, and so was the mustachioed guy to my left. He did a slow, mocking headshake, like, “Seriously, there are four of you, and you can’t figure out 64?” In return, before I considered it too deeply, I tossed him and elbow and gave him a good thump in the ribs.

In that moment, he felt like my brother.1451097772732So.

Yea.

Always, everywhere, it’s the people.
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