Thursday, January 16, 2014

Leon, Nicaragua

Leon Cathedral
I left Managua on a mini-van from the UCA station headed to Leon. Fabbiola and her father, Luis, had given me a quick tutorial of what to look for in a safe taxi. She pointed out the taxi license plates should have a red stripe on the tip and the bottom. She also showed me to watch for the driver's information on the front dash. They warned me not to get I to a cab without these markings. It seems there are people that pretend to be taxis and take tourists to an ATM and empty their bank accounts. I was thankful they had explained and reassured me that Nicaragua is the safest of all Central American countries. I made a reservation for December 26 with them and said goodbye. The taxi dropped me off at the Leon UCA station and told me which mini-van to get on for Leon. I waited a few minutes when the van arrived and we started to get in. I looked a the guy and asked about my bag. He told me to take it on with me. I tried fitting it under the seat. That did not work. Then I put it on the seat next to me. I figured worse case, I pay for 2 seats, a whopping $2 for each seat! The mini-van leaves when it is full. These asked me to hand him my bag. He forced it under the back seats and one more man jumped into the van. It was a quick 1.5 hours to Leon. I was excited to explore the colonial town with a strong Sandinista background.

I had reserved a room at La Gordita Posada. I wanted to relax through the holiday in one hotel. I was tired from moving every couple of days for the last 2 months. Monica, the owner greeted me and showed me to my room. She had told me there was a group of people that wanted to go to the beach to watch sea turtles lay eggs. Did I want to go along? Absolutely! I love sea turtles and have been chasing them around the world. Why not try one more time? I ran to the ATM, got some cash and had a quick bite to eat. The guide picked us up and took us to the Juan Venado Island reserve where we were given heap lamps for our walk to the boat. We boarded the small boat and floated down a canal. Bats flying over the river. After half an hour, we arrived at a deck and were told to carefully make our way from the boat to the shore. I looked at the guide and asked about alligators and crocodiles. I did not want to come face to face with either creature! He assured me they were further down the river as he held out his hand. I decided to face fear and go for it. We walked through the jungle to the ocean. We stopped to spot iguanas in the trees, birds flying overhead and crabs scurrying across the sand. When we arrived at the reserve, we looked at the bags of sand which held the turtle eggs waiting to hatch. Then we walked the beaches looking for turtles. We rested on the beach under the moonlight talking about life, love and politics. It amazes me how I have had discussions with people of different backgrounds and nobody gets mad. It isn't a fight. Just a discussion of people with different views. I love these moments. At 11:00PM everyone was tired and decided to make the trip back to the B&B. When we got back, I showered and collapsed into bed exhausted from a long day.
The next morning, I awoke early and went to explore the city in the early morning. I was looking for daily life. Leon is a colonial city that has been the liberal center of politics in Nicaragua. There were periods of time when it was the capital.

Leon's colonial streets.

The following days were spent photographing and relaxing in the city and visiting museums and churches. I had met a young woman, Chantal, that was traveling solo and we decided to explore the area together. We were both given warning about safety and we had a few overly fanatical people harped on our safety. Seemed we were going to be raped, killed or kidnapped anywhere we went. We both had read the safety warnings and asked our B&B hostess Monica about safety. We were smart enough to stick together but our experiences told us these stories were rarities that were being told over and over again. We did not have any issues during our travels in Nicaragua. The guidebooks also stressed Nicaragua was the safest of all the Latin American countries. We decided to use our travel experiences and guts to guide us. We had one incident where a young woman came up and told us to get out of the area and put our cell phones away.  It probably wasn't smart to be sitting on a step getting free internet at 9:30 PM. We did as she suggested.

University in Leon

La Recollecion Church 1786
Leon is the center of the Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua. Throughout the city, there are murals and memorials to the men and women that fought the Nicaraguan President and dictator Somoza's regime.
Today, his former palace serves as a museum to the revolution and former veterans give tours of the building. The most interesting story I was told was by our B&B owner Monica. Her maid told how she had gotten a letter from a high ranking official to release her sister from prison for being a lesbian. She made her way across the central plaza waving a white flag to avoid snipper firing from the roofs of the cathedral and city hall buildings. As I listened to stories about the revolution, I realized my ignorance again. I have learned more about the USA by traveling the world than I ever learned in history class. I am thankful for this time and opportunity to understand the importance of being educated, reading and understanding global politics when making decisions at the voting booth. I am becoming more adamant that politicians need more global experiences rather than money to buy their seats representing me. I am also amazed at the role women took in the revolution. There are so many stories in Nicaragua of the role women took in changing the course of their government. Wow! It makes me proud to see how instrumental woman are in society. In many poor countries, women and girls are treated as lower class citizens. They aren't educated. I have become an advocate of educating our daughters. As I have watched women around the world, we take a strong role and I believe it will be woman that will change this world.
Revolutionary Museum
One afternoon, Chantal and I took  took a taxi to the botanical garden and walked through the gardens with Rene (Monica's father).

Banana flower is one of my favorites...and the bananas!
The flowers and plants were beautiful. But, I was cautious. I had been warned multiple times to stay on the paths and watch out for snakes. I was in the wild and they were everywhere. I only heard one slithering away and it caused me to scream. Whew! I was happy not to be face to face with any snakes.

Merry Christmas from Leon, Nicaragua

As the holidays were approaching, I noticed the difference celebrating Christmas in a third world country. There was little commercialization of Christmas. There were decorations but it wasn't in your face like I was use to in the USA. We didn't see people with handfuls of gifts. That was rare. Maybe for a child. The Nicaraguans were decorating the town square with nativity scenes. They were spending time singing carols and enjoying the holiday with family and friends. I enjoyed the simplicity of the holiday. I thought of all the people that always remind everyone to remember the "reason for the season" but suspect many wouldn't go to this simplicity. We have gotten so use to gifts as the reason for Christmas. I loved the simplicity. It was calm. No stress and hectic parties or expectations of gift giving. Just enjoying the moments with people that had become my travel family. In Leon, Christmas is celebrated on December 24 at midnight. Everyone told us to arrive at the cathedral square at midnight. Chantal and I had dinner with Monica and her father, brother and 4 friends. The food was delicious. We all drank and ate and enjoyed the moment. At 10:00PM, some children came by and performed a customary "La Gigantona". This show was created to reject years of oppression by the Spaniard's. La Gigantona is a type of a big doll, three meters tall constructed on a light wood frame and covered with a colorful dress and lots of ornamentations. She represents the big white Spanish woman with elegance and power. El Enano Cabezon is a small fabric custom figure with a big head symbolizing the underestimated mestizo by the Spanish domination.
One boy recites the verses while boys play a rhythmic drums.  Young boys dress as the La Gigantona and El Enano Cabezon and took turns dancing at the animated sound of the drums. Our group had an 8 year old boy dressed as a cow that had amazing footwork. We clapped and cheered them on during the performance.
 Afterwards, we walked to the square for the fireworks. When we arrived at 11:45, the square was empty. Trash was spread across the square but few people. We looked around and saw a few fireworks in the distance. We all looked at our watches confused. It seemed we missed the party. Baby Jesus was in the nativity scenes and the doors to the cathedral were closed. Music was streaming from nearby clubs. We walked over and entered a club. This was the first time in my life that I was spending Christmas Eve at a club. The music was jamming and the party was in full force. We got drinks and enjoyed the party. As usual, I attracted a little pip-squeak. He walked up and introduced himself to me. It was his 21st birthday. I wished him well and we chatted then he introduced me to his little sister. I wasn't in the mood to babysit and said goodbye. I wandered the club watching everyone and enjoying the music. I found my group and we all chilled...until the little birthday boy came over and picked me up off the floor and lifted me towards the sky. Oh no! This was not going to be pretty! Who did he think he was? Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing? I screamed while my friends encouraged him by clapping. I was relieved when he put me back on the floor. I was given another beer and tried to get away from my little stalker. It was a different Christmas experience! When I looked at my watch, it was 2:00 AM! I was exhausted and ready to go to bed. I told my friends goodnight and started to leave when the little birthday boy walked up and wanted to dance. I said no. He leaned over to hug and kiss me goodbye on the cheek, as is customary in Nicaragua. Surprise for me! He bit my cheek instead!!!! I yelped like a dog and he whispered not so sweet suggestions to me. No! I was not interested. I left and walked back to the B&B. Unfortunately, Rene was awake and decided to complain to me about everything that was wrong in his life. I didn't have patience for it and gave him some much needed straight-talk. He needed to work out his issues with a professional and not me. I knew he was drunk but I had enjoyed a fun and interesting night and I was not going to let him ruin it! I said goodnight and went to bed. 

I awoke on Christmas morning and greeted Monica with a smile and thanked her for the wonderful dinner. I was tired and lazy and ready for a quiet day. Chantal and I spent the day watching Big Bang Theory marathon, eating leftovers, contacting friends and family and relaxing. 
Goodbye Leon!
I packed my bag and prepared to leave for Managua on the 26th. Chantal and I were going to be on the same bus and we wanted to get an early start. Monica convinced us to wait until later. Her driver came to pick us up at 9:30AM. We got to the bus station and saw the line waiting for UCA bus. It would be a few hours! We looked at one another and Jose (taxi driver). No!!! It was going to be a really long day. Jose offered to drive us for $50. Yes! It was a fun ride! Jose laughed and danced as he drove. He educated us on the scams in Nicaragua and taught us to always sit behind the taxi driver so we would not get killed. It was an educational and fun ride. We stopped in Nagarote,  the cleanest and quaintest town in all of Nicaragua. We walked around the central plaza and wished we had spent a few days in this adorable little town.
Nagarote (Chantal and Michelle)

Afterwards, we went for a Nicaraguan specialty called quesillo. It was a homemade cheese, marinated onions and a homemade tortilla doused in fresh cream. It was not healthy but delicious. Eating it was an event in itself! The Nicaraguans place it in a plastic bag. It was the slipperiest and messiest food I have ever eaten. I could not stop laughing as it wanted to slip right out of the bag. If I squeezed it too hard, the cream oozed out of the bag and all over my hand.
We drove on to Managua where I was dropped back at my hostel. I said goodbye to Chantal and promised to meet her in Managua for a trip to the Corn Islands on January 4th. Tomorrow, I meet up with my friends the McCrosky's.




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