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Quito y Manzanillo

I hopped on a bike that felt slightly more stable than the one I rode on Ometepe and headed out of Puerto Viejo, a quaint, laid-back Caribbean town on the edge of Costa Rica. It only takes a few minutes to walk across the entire town, thus it didn’t take long to get out via bicycle and onto a small, coastal road.

I came around the first major bend in the road to find a clearing of trees that opened up onto a lovely beach and turquoise, Caribbean water. I stopped briefly, but kept on, as I was en route to Manzanillo (about seven miles down the road). When I pulled into town (which was even smaller than Puerto Viejo), the pothole-ridden road turned into a sandy trail, through arching palm trees.

I started talking to a nice man selling coconuts – I decided to buy one and asked him to watch my bike, which I had locked to a palm tree. He picked up one of the coconuts and began hacking at it with a machete. Once he got it open he threw a straw in the top and pointed me in the right direction. After a short hike through the jungle, I was sipping coconut water, straight from the source, on a sandy beach.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo

I laid peacefully in the shade for a while, listening to the sound of the waves lap against the shore. I hopped back on my gear-less, beach cruiser and peddled back down the bumpy road towards town.

Manzanillo

Manzanillo

For some reason I was craving BBQ so I stopped by an Australian spot, where I met some cool people and enjoyed delicious food. The following morning I headed back to San Jose to plan out the next chapter of my adventure. I met a really cool Canadian on the bus; she is living in Puerto Viejo and volunteering at the animal rescue center. We had an awesome conversation about all kinds of things, but by far the coolest part occurred when we got off the bus. Before we went our separate ways, she told me to hold out my hand, as she placed what looked kind of like a chestnut, in my palm. “It’s a seed,” she said, “from Puerto. It’s supposed to protect you.”

It was a beautiful gesture that I feel sums up the backpackers’ state of mind. I have learned that when you are traveling, you look out for one another. I think many people have a preconceived notion that traveling is inherently dangerous. Yes, you need to be careful, but believe me, not everyone is out to get you.

While I enjoyed Costa Rica, something (apart of from my 10-day visa) was telling me that it was time to move on. I made friends with some hilarious Italians. I hiked through a cloud forest. I pushed my limits and went zip-lining hundreds of feet above the jungle. I biked to picturesque beaches and drank out of coconuts. I met some amazing people and made some new friends. Costa Rica – I’ll be back.

Quito, Ecuador is beautiful. As we began our descent towards the airport we dipped below the frothy clouds, catching glimpses of green, sloping mountains. The city itself is bigger than I imagined (about 2.6 million people), and sits at 9,350 feet above sea level. Altitude sickness is very common among tourists here, but I’m doing just fine so far.

Fortunately I awoke to a sunny day this morning, so I hopped on a local bus headed for Mitad del Mundo (“Middle of the World”). About an hour and $.70 later (the official currency of Ecuador is the U.S. dollar – it’s really strange to be somewhere so foreign, yet use money from back home) I arrived at my destination. Minutes later, my right foot was in the Northern Hemisphere and my left foot in the Southern (or so I thought).

This line was once thought by some French explorers to be the Equator, so they built a fabulous monument to commemorate this sacred place. As it turns out, the French were about 720 feet off, which was pretty good given the instruments they had.

Original French equatorial line

Original French equatorial line

GPS as since pinpointed the location just next door, where a more interactive experience has been built. Though it lacks a massive monument or a touristy village, this site was actually more interesting and educational. They showed us how water does not spiral when flowing through a drain on the equator; it just drops straight down, as well as many of the instruments indigenous people used to tell time, seasons, etc. long before the Europeans arrived. In fact, ‘Qui-’ means “middle” and ‘-to’ means “Earth.”

GPS-located equatorial line

GPS-located equatorial line

On my way back it started to pour, so when I eventually reached my cozy hostel, I decided to stay in for the evening. I may take some Spanish classes next week, and perhaps even live in a homestay. I’m really looking forward to my month here in Ecuador. I love this place already.

For the first time in my entire life I slept through my alarm. I had set it for 5am so that I could be at the bus station by 6, though when I awoke on my own accord, I clicked on my phone – 5:50am was staring me in the face.

I rubbed my eyes, hoping that they had deceived me. No such luck. I scrambled out of bed and tossed my things into my backpack, sprinting through my mental checklist of the most important items.

I hustled out the door of the hostel en route to the Tica Bus terminal. On the map it didn’t look that far, but each block seemed like it would never end. After it was all said and done I tumbled through the terminal doorway at 6:40am, only to find that I could only buy a standby ticket. Fortunately there was space and off I went.

When we arrived at the Costa Rican boarder, I approached the immigration desk with my passport, only to have the immigration officer ask me for my departure ticket from Nicaragua. “I don’t have one, I am going to buy it in Costa Rica,” I told her confidently in Spanish, with a big smile on my face.

She started rattling a whole bunch of information off really quickly (I am finding that Costa Rican Spanish is more difficult to understand than that of Nicaragua) – basically she said I needed to prove when I was leaving the country so that she could issue the proper number of days onto my visa.

Apparently in my research I had missed this important tidbit of information.

She asked me how long I would be in Costa Rica – at this point I wanted to seem as innocent as possible / I also didn’t realize how important my answer was. “Una semana” – “One week,” I replied quickly. Apparently I didn’t look too intimidating because she stamped my passport, scribbled something down and I was on my way. Little did I know, it didn’t matter what I looked like because she had only given me 10 days on my visa. This could have been much worse had I planned on staying here for quite some time, but luckily I originally planned to only be here for a week or so.

Despite the fact that I was only allowed to spend 10 days inside the country, I was determined to make the most of my time. I met an awesome couple at the bus station, Ellie (from Colorado) and Os (from Costa Rica) – they showed me a really cool hostel and then around the main street, which reminded me a lot of a smaller version of La Rambla, in Barcelona. Once the mini-tour was over we stopped into a restaurant to grab a beer and chat about life. Turns out the two are really interested in languages (Os teaches Spanish) and actually take Mandarin classes every Saturday in San Jose, so I told them about my trip to China, etc. [note: Thank you for being awesome hosts!]

Eventually I bid them farewell, headed back to my hostel and started to plan my next move.

The next day I wandered back down the street in search of shoe deodorant, which apparently doesn’t exist in Costa Rica, and then onto the National Museum, which is housed in a really cool, old, bright yellow fort.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

I meandered through the various exhibits, each of which pertained to some part of Costa Rican history. One particular exhibit detailed key players on hanging cards, allowing visitors to literally “walk through” history. My favorite exhibit consisted of photographs of iconic moments in recent history – everything from Obama’s first visit to Costa Rica to the construction of the Panama Canal. It was quite fascinating.

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I decided to take a bus to La Fortuna, a quaint town that sits near the base of Arenal, the famous volcano. Unfortunately, when I got to town I was informed that no one is allowed to climb the volcano right now and due to the constant rain, that Cerro Chato (a smaller hike to a crater lagoon) would be dangerous. Apparently I was supposed to take it easy in La Fortuna. Fortunately, I met two hilarious Italian guys and happened upon an awesome hostel.

While I admired the little town, I decided to head out to Monteverde the following day, in search of something new and boy did I find it.

Even smaller than La Fortuna, this misty town is situated on the edge of a cloud forest; I wasn’t going to let the rain stop me this time. I met two cool Americans named Kyle and James, who let me tag along on their hiking adventure for the day. We wandered through the jungle and across wobbly, metal suspension bridges, passing through low-hanging clouds. It was a very peaceful experience.

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That night we went a “night hike,” in search of Costa Rica’s nocturnal wildlife. We saw a sloth, plenty of birds and lots of bugs, but the coolest thing we saw had to be a big, orange and black tarantula that the guide lured out of its hole with a cricket.

I felt like I was watching Planet Earth in person or something.

While the hikes were interesting and educational, without a doubt, the best part of Monteverde was ziplining. Earlier this morning, I was attempting to figure out which canopy tour to go on when I randomly met a group of people from Tacoma (of all places)! We joined forces and made our way out of town and up a rocky, dirt road to Monteverde Extremo.

The name says it all. This tops any sort of canopy tour I have ever seen.

Ziplining

The course started nice and easy, yet by the third line I found myself flying across a damp, green valley, hundreds of feet above the jungle. Surely I was a little scared, but . That was until we got to the rappel platform, where we were lowered several hundred feet down to a “tarzan swing,” which was essentially a short free fall until the rope tightened and swung you high into the canopy.

I was literally shaking as I approached the edge. The two men strapped my harness to the rope and then without much warning helped me off the ledge.

I screamed. First out of terror and then out of joy.

The last few lines were relatively short, until we got to the final line. While it was 1 kilometer long, a small storm had rolled in and then subsided, so you could only see about 300 meters of the line before it disappeared completely into the mist. To top it all off, I decided to go “superman,” meaning that instead of sitting with my harness strapped in front of me, my harness was strapped behind me, allowing me to lay on my stomach, staring straight down some 450 ft.

The guide got the ok and sent me off. I have never felt so close to flying before. I went shooting down the cable and into the white mist. We were supposed to open our arms when we reached halfway (when I asked where halfway was, the guide replied with a smile, “In the middle”). Just as I did so, I popped out of the cloud and caught a glimpse of the stunning landscape below me.

As many of you know, one of my favorite quotes is “Do one thing a day that scares you” – Eleanor Roosevelt. I think Eleanor would be proud because today I did four or five. Several years ago, I don’t think I would have swung like Tarzan through the trees. Several years ago, I don’t think I would have embarked on an 8-month trip around the Southern Hemisphere. Fortunately, today is now.

I won’t lie – my legs were quivering before I jumped off the tarzan swing platform. I pushed myself today and it feels awesome. I don’t think I’m going to become an adrenaline junkie anytime soon, but I feel alive today. I feel confident. I feel content.

The weather is much cooler here than in Nicaragua, and everything is a lot cleaner. Though, certain parts feel very westernized/touristy – we passed a Denny’s and a Taco Bell on the way into San Jose.

Monteverde was a nice step away from the franchised fast food restaurants, but after 10 long hours of bus rides today I made it to Puerto Viejo (on the Caribbean coast) to escape the rain and enjoy my last couple days in this amazing country.

Superman zipline

Superman zipline

I jumped into the back of a monstrous, bright orange truck, not entirely sure how the next few hours were going to go. Shortly thereafter we traded the narrow, cobblestone streets of León for a windy, bumpy country road.

We approached what looked like a massive mound of black dirt, though this was no ordinary pile of dirt – this was Cerro Negro (literally meaning, “Black Hill”), the most active cinder cone volcano in Central America, and I was about to slide down it on a modified piece of plywood.

Cerro Negro

Cerro Negro

We navigated our way up the loose volcanic rock, which made cool squeaking sounds underneath our shoes. As we walked along in a single file line, the view from the ridge above the crater was amazing. To our right, smoke rose steadily out of a white/reddish sulfuric center; to our left the dark volcanic rock contrasted beautifully against the surrounding light green hills and wispy blue sky.

After a short, hilarious orientation we put on our bulky orange suits – we looked like a bunch of convicts, ready to make some daring escape down a steep volcano. When it was my turn, I strapped up my green-tinted, high school science class-like goggles, switched on my GoPro camera (video coming soon), sat on my board and kicked off.

At first the board was difficult to control; the front slid back and forth as I picked up speed. Finally, I found my balance and zoomed down the mountain. It was unlike anything I have ever done before.

Volcano Boarding

Volcano Boarding

At the summit, the view reminded me a lot of the top of a ski slope – you see the terrain in front of you (which was black gravel, instead of white snow), until it steeply drops off, leaving you with a breathtaking view over the entire surrounding area.

As I picked up speed I could feel my feet getting warmer, due to the friction, as well as the fact that they were touching an active volcano. Amid flying rocks, stiff wind and a unique adrenaline rush, I made it down without a scratch on my body. One girl in our group managed to hit 75 km/hr (about 46 mph), though the record still stands at 95 km/hr (59 mph!).

I finally got to play some soccer on the beach (it has been a lot harder to find people to play sports with than I thought), until it started pouring rain. I then spent the remainder of my time in León wandering around admiring the many churches and politically charged artwork. While Leon may feel like a bigger city, there isn’t a whole lot to do there so I headed back down to Granada as my final stop in Nicaragua. One of my new friends works at a animal rehabilitation center near Liberia, Costa Rica, and being that there is no internet at the tree house, I took a quick taxi up there to determine if I would be accompanying him back to the farm.

Una iglesia de León

Una iglesia de León

I wandered down the familiar streets of Granada looking for a cab, but had no such luck. Two men, one who spoke English, near the Parque Central persistently offered me a taxi, though something in my gut told me not to go with them. I can’t really explain it – the offering of assistance felt insincere, like the makings of a tourist trap.

And then out of nowhere, an older man came whipping around the corner and stopped right in front of me. There were already two women and two kids in the backseat of his taxi, nevertheless, he saw the other men closing in an attempt to strike a deal and immediately undercut their price. This time my gut told me to hop in, so I did.

Minutes later the man asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I replied, which disrupted the calm demeanor of the man and brought about a new energy in him.

“Los Estados Unidos es el mejor país del mundo,” he declared dramatically – “The United States is the best country in the world.” I was pleasantly surprised and honestly taken aback. Most people here have been very friendly and helpful, but not to the point of declaring my country the “greatest on Earth.” He went on to explain that while the U.S. does some bad stuff, all countries have bad people, and the U.S. helps those in need. Plus, they have Major League Baseball (his brother lives in San Francisco, so he is a Giants fan).

We went back and forth talking about politics, baseball, poverty, his favorite U.S. presidents (he really liked Ronald Reagan for some reason), communism, war, etc. About halfway, he was explaining why he feels that democracy is so great; “democracy allows us to be friends,” he said, extending his hand. As I shook it, and told him my name was Wilson, he smiled and exclaimed, “Como la pelota!” – “Like the ball (from Castaway).” As we neared the tree house the road became muddier and rugged; he slowed down and looked gravely at the rough terrain ahead. He then turned to me and said what perhaps might be the only words he knows in English, “I’m sorry, Wilson.”

The sincerity in his voice was heart wrenching. He felt as though he was letting me down – after that single sentence, the conversation switched back to Spanish and I assured him that everything was just fine.

Little did he know that was one of the coolest taxi rides of my life and a moment I’ll never forget.

I bid my new friend farewell and gave him a nice tip. Holding the money in his hands, he looked up, smiled – “Dios bendiga usted y Los Estados Unidos” – “God bless you and the United States.”

And with that he was gone.

It is crazy to think how people can instantaneously enter (and exit) our lives. For example, I decided to eat my last meal in Granada at my favorite restaurant: Garden Café, when I started talking to a group at the table behind me. Turns out they are part of The World Race, a sort of mission adventure (as opposed to a “trip” as they are traveling to 11 countries all over the world in 11 months). I had an awesome conversation with them, all because I offered them some advice on where to go on Ometepe. [note: Good luck you guys!]

I can hardly believe that my time in Nicaragua has finally come to an end, but what an experience it was. Nicaragua was actually a last minute addition to my itinerary – I am so grateful I took a chance on this perfectly imperfect country. Yes, Nicaragua is not without its problems, but it is also home to kind, friendly people, beautiful wildlife and an awesomely eclectic taste in music (I cannot tell you how many times I heard ‘Changes’ by Tupac, right after ‘Stand by Me’ played). I have grown more in the past few weeks than I ever imagined I would and could not have asked for a better start to my adventure.

Nicaragua, you a beautifully real place.

[note: I made it to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will try to get another post up soon!]

Futbol

Ometepe ferry

Ferry to Ometepe

Local sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf

Local sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf

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A House in the Trees

I hopped off the crowded old yellow school bus at a very familiar bus stop, Parada Guanacaste – the same bus stop I sat at by myself the second morning of my trip waiting for my friends.

It’s funny, many of these school buses still have the red stop sign on the driver’s side that extends whenever the bus stops and the door opens – needless to say, “Unlawful to pass when red lights flash” doesn’t carry much weight in Nicaragua.

I hailed down a tuc tuc cab and started up the muddy trail toward Poste Rojo. I had almost reached the top of the steep, rocky trail when, “WILLLLSOOOONNN” rang out through the jungle. I spun around to see Brayan standing on the suspension bridge up in the canopy, doing his best Tom Hanks / Castaway impression.

It was good to be back.

The tree house is truly a special place – when I reached the top of the always-surprisingly strenuous hike, I felt at ease, at peace, and in tune with my surroundings.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what your story is when you’re at the tree house – a cool group of Dutch students who are interning in Managua, an awesome couple from South Africa, a hip Canadian couple that spins fire and hula hoops, and Travis, a gentleman in his own right, all sat under cover, conversing and listening to the steady hum of rain pelting the tin roof.

Though, when I say that stories don’t matter, I do not mean that they are irrelevant, but rather that they are to be told freely. And they are. This is evident by all of the inspirational, and sometimes random, quotes that line the walls, countertops and support beams and by the beautiful art and random keepsakes hanging on the walls. Most importantly, this is evident by every single footprint once stamped onto the ceiling.

If you spend time at the tree house, you are encouraged to “leave your mark,” and being that my footprint is different than every single other “mark” left at Poste Rojo, Brayan wanted to make a distinct plaque for it. We printed my feet onto a wooden board, and then he is going to finish the rest of the design. I often forget that I have 11 toes, yet it has forever served as my icebreaker/’fun fact’, it was the subject of my UW application essay, it fascinated little kids for hours when I lifeguarded, and now it is the mark I will leave on the tree house.

Leave your mark

While I may leave my mark on the tree house, it has certainly left a mark on me, just as Nicaragua as a whole has left a mark on me (and I hope I have left a mark on Nicaragua). I left home almost three weeks ago, and in three short weeks I now have friends from all over the world, friends that have offered their couch up if I am ever in town, and friends that I would gladly do the same for.

I decided to spend the night in Granada before heading up to León. Max (whom I met at the tree house) and I decided that we were going to make dinner so we walked down the street to the supermarket to get all the necessary ingredients, including chocolate milk, which comes in a bag here! We bought some more vegetables from a nice, older couple in the market on the way back and whipped up some delicious burritos.

This morning I wandered around Granada a bit – I ran into the nice couple from Florida that I met on Ometepe. It was fun to hear about the rest of their adventures on the island and see some familiar faces. At this point, I know my way around the town pretty well, so I bid them farewell and ran back to my hostel before leaving for León.

The more time I spend here, the smaller the backpacking world seems, for as I wandered into my hostel after dinner, there were my other friends from Ometepe! All told, I am in a good spot right now and really enjoying my adventure.

Tomorrow I am going volcano boarding. Never thought I would ever say that.

León

León

La Isla de Ometepe

I strolled out onto the hot sand of San Juan del Sur and looked up at a huge stone statue of Jesus (similar to the one in Rio de Janiero), that peered out over the city, as if guarding the sleepy, little fishing bay.

Christ of the Mercy Statue

Christ of the Mercy Statue

I wandered down the beach by myself, taking in all around me, pondering my next adventure, reminiscing on what I had seen and whom I had met thus far. Speaking of people I had met, I ran into my Irish friends yesterday, who greeted me with a booming “Go Seahawks!”

I kept on down the beach, past a bunch of resorts and a suspension footbridge that looks very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge, and up onto a steep, paved road, that zigzagged its way up through a series of mansions and lush greenery.

Footbridge in San Juan del Sur

Footbridge in San Juan del Sur

Finally I reached the top – I peered out in awe over the entire bay and then farther up the coast. The water was a deep turquoise, and stretched all the way to the misty Costa Rican coastline, allowing me to sit in peace.

San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur

A few days ago, my parents randomly ran into our good friend (and former “manny”) Michael and his wife, Olivia, in Paris, all because they had decided to go get some ice cream.

It’s funny how little, seemingly trivial decisions have much a much greater impact on our lives than we realize. Afterwards, Mike gave me three pieces of advice:

  1. If you feel sick / like you need to throw up – do it
  2. If you hear live music – go toward it. Always.
  3. Almost all bad times are followed by good/incredible times

I thought particularly about #3 as I sat below this gigantic statue, yet above what seemed like the rest of reality. Constantly whenever I feel down, something amazing happens. Something picks me up.

Sometimes it is a breathtaking view over the Pacific. Sometimes it is the delicious fish tacos on the beach while the restaurant blasts 70s/80s rock/disco, after a breathtaking view over the Pacific.

The next day before departing for La Isla de Ometepe, I happened to meet Alex Tuthill, a UW grad who started Pacha Mama (arguably the most well-known hostel in San Juan del Sur). He left corporate America behind after the 2008 financial crisis and ended up meeting his future Nicaraguan business partner in a hostel while traveling.

We ended up chatting for a good 15 minutes or so, about his business and how it has evolved, an emerging middle class in Nicaragua and the various projects he is involved in around the community – currently he is helping to rebuild the local health clinic, but he is also involved in local youth sports leagues, women’s shelters, etc. And to think, simply because I wore my UW shorts that day, I ended up having an awesome conversation.

Ometepe is a gigantic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua that houses two massive volcanoes – it looks like it belongs in Jurassic Park.

La Isla de Ometepe

La Isla de Ometepe

On the way to the ferry terminal in San Jorge, I noticed a pickup truck, with literally hundreds of chairs stacked in the back – apparently being in the ‘chair delivery’ industry is quite profitable in Nicaragua because whenever anyone has any sort of get together it is customary to ensure that you have a seat for every single guest. Who knew?

I sat down on the stiff, warm wooden bench on the musty ferry, as the loud motor churned at the water, attempting to pry itself from the land. Mexico was playing Nicaragua in Little League baseball on a tiny, fuzzy television set, so I sat down with some other men and entered the conversation. My friend in Oakland A’s cap at the bus stop some two weeks ago was right – everyone in Nicaragua loves baseball. One guy’s favorite team was the Boston Red Sox, while the other’s was the LA Dodgers. The Dodgers fan spoke nearly perfect English – turns out he grew up in LA, but left the states for one reason or another. Now he lives on Ometepe, working as a chef – really nice guy. He helped a few of us backpackers navigate the swarm of taxi drivers that came spilling onto the boat as soon as we docked.

I shared a cab with a couple other people over to Santa Cruz on the other side of the island. By the time we arrived it was dark, but in the morning I awoke to an incredible view. Volcano Concepcion (the bigger and active one of the two on the island) was framed by a sloping forest and a baby blue sky, filled with puffs of white clouds.

I rented a bike for a few hours and took off down the road toward Ojo de Agua (“Eye of the Water”). While the road was paved (kind of), I thought the rickety bike was going to fall apart at any moment. Nevertheless, I came around a long bend, and found myself face to face with Volcano Concepcion, the active, traditionally shaped volcano. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought to myself, “this isn’t real life” while on this adventure, but this surely was one of them.

Biking around Ometepe

Biking around Ometepe

The cool, natural springs of Ojo de Agua were refreshing and the rope swing was pretty sweet. After I had cooled off I headed back down the road by myself, peddling like a maniac in a hopeless attempt to escape the scorching heat.

I got up early this morning, as today I was going to climb Madeira, the smaller, more forested volcano on the island. As we clambered up a trail toward the entrance of the park, our friendly guide, Harold, gave a us a quick Ometepe history lesson (currently it has 47,000 residents, but the first inhabitants came here 4,000 years ago), and showed us some 2,000 year old petroglyphs.

We started up the rocky trail, which would only get rockier (and muddier, and steeper). We made it up to an awesome lookout, however, at this point Harold gave us a choice whether we wanted to keep going (which he said wouldn’t be fun, as it poured last night so we would be trudging through deep mud into clouds – meaning we wouldn’t be able to see much) or turn back and go to another eco reserve. We decided to head back, which ended up being really cool because as the hike got easier, Harold opened up in conversation.

He commented on the state of Ometepe – he said that tourism has greatly improved the quality of life on the island. For example, there used to be two schools on the island and now every town has its own school. There are still plenty of problems, one being sexual education – Harold’s wife has 64 siblings.

Sure, there are problems, but Ometepe is also nearly self-sustaining – almost all of the fruit, dairy and meat products come from the island or the lake. Unlike much of Nicaragua, there is a recycling program on the island, the animals look much healthier and in general, the people have a much greater respect for nature.

We finished our hike only to learn that we missed the bus, and another one wouldn’t be coming for another 2 ½ hours, so we hopped in the back of a truck with a soccer team, all clad in Bayern Munich jerseys, all of things.

Regardless of what I am doing, I am learning something everyday. I am so incredibly grateful for this opportunity. Just before I left I sat down to enjoy the cool morning breeze, as I stared out over the volcano, which had nearly been swallowed clouds.

Ometepe – it was a pleasure.

Ruta de Evacuacion

Twenty Three

For the first time in my life I spent my birthday away from close friends and family – at times it was a bit rough. I did my best to keep busy. I learned that I’m not that good at surfing; though technically at one point I was standing vertically on the board, while moving forward, which in my book counts for something.

I also learned that while the nightly news has made this world out to seem inherently evil, there is plenty of inherent good as well.

Sunset

Our guests began to arrive, just as the sun was setting as beautifully as I have ever seen it set before. First some of Susan’s friends from down the road showed up, then Daniel, the groundskeeper, and few other people. Just as dusk had settled, and darkness crept into the sky, a pair of headlights came tearing down the dirt road – out hopped our friends Brayan and Calvin from the tree house hostel. A little while later, Freddie and Alex (our “dope” [they really liked that American slang word] friends from Manchester, whom we met at the tree house) pulled up in a moto taxi, followed closely by Erol, our hilarious surf instructor, and his girlfriend. Everyone wandered over to the hammock deck, which was strung with lights and covered by a loose circle of wooden chairs and tables, and the birthday celebration ensued.

I knew almost everyone there, however, none longer than a matter of days. There were people from Australia, Nicaragua, New Zealand, England, Costa Rica, Canada, and the U.S. – all sitting harmoniously together in celebration of people they had only just met.

The world needs more spontaneous, international, joint birthday parties.

I enjoyed talking and hanging out with everyone, especially practicing my Spanish with Daniel. We talked about the people of Nicaragua, what he does, sports, language, etc.

One recurring theme seemed to be how much of an impact Susan had on Daniel’s life – because she gave him a job, he makes enough to provide for his family, etc. I could tell he is very loyal.

This sentiment was reiterated throughout the night – no matter whom I talked to or what we talked about, somehow Susan, and how awesome/welcoming she is, came up in conversation.

At one point, I stood in the yard and looked out across the deck filled with laughter, conversations between new friends, and old, and tales of far away lands – I couldn’t help but to be grateful, and humbled by this experience. The several times I have missed home, I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have an opportunity such as this.

All of a sudden a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday” rumbled through the small crowd, and a cake complete with candles, and all of our names written in icing, appeared.

All in all, the party was awesome – hands down, the most unique birthday party I have ever attended and the perfect way to kick off this adventure, as I am going to head farther south by myself to San Juan del Rio and then to Ometepe.

Blink 182 once said, “Nobody likes you when you’re 23,” but so far, so good.

Garden Grove

Garden Grove

Laguna de Apoyo

I wrote and read by myself for a while the next morning before we packed up our stuff and hopped in Brayan’s truck and drove over to Laguna de Apoyo, a clear, deep blue crater lake that was created by a natural volcano implosion.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

The ride was bumpy but the water was as clear as any I have ever seen – it was also some of the warmest.

Some locals swam a big, buoyant log over to us, so we thanked them and then all hopped on to paddle farther out. This is beginning to feel less and less like real life.

After swimming, Brayan gave us a ride to Paradiso Hostel further up the lake. We bid farewell to our new friends and then hopped down the stone stairs to check in. It was getting dark so we decided to clean up after a few days in the forest (a tree house can only be so clean) and then grab some dinner at the cool, thatched roof restaurant just above the beach.

We met these awesome English twins named Tom and Kristie – among some other interesting characters. If I ever make it to Manchester, Tom said he would take me to a Man U game! The whole traveling mindset is really refreshing – most everyone is open-minded, kind and genuine. My world has truly expanded ten-fold in the past week, as I am growing and thinking all of the time. It is incredibly freeing not to worry about homework, for example, and instead, living in the moment and appreciating the beautiful intricacies of say, a doorway.

I also met a German couple that night. When the guy asked me where I was from, I replied, “The U.S.” (I hadn’t told him what state or city mind you). He leaned back, smirking and nodding his head up and down, as if he was really excited about whatever he was about to tell me – “Detlef Schrempf,” he said approvingly.

Needless to say we talked about the Sonics for the next 20 minutes or so.

The next morning I ate a delicious omelet and jumped in the lake one last time before heading back to Granada. From Backyard Hostel, I got in a bus with my new friends, and a small group, which included a handful of Irish guys, who would become my new, new friends.

We boarded a small boat and embarked for Las Isletas, a group of small islands just outside town that were created when the volcano erupted 100,000+ years ago. Led by Evan, one of Tim’s friends from Peace Corp, the short cruise was fascinating. [note: Evan is also a part of camafina.org – a really cool micro-finance NGO aimed at improving public healthcare in Nicaragua]

Las Isletas

Las Isletas

Some of the islands are inhabited by locals that still survive almost entirely off of the lake, while others are owned by Nicaragua’s “1%” – they have helipads, jetskis and beautiful mansions built atop them. While the average Nicraguan makes a few dollars per day, these people are multi-millionaires. The disparity of wealth in this country is insane.

One island, popularly known as “Monkey Island” is the product of a veterinarian’s experiment who wanted to see if he could increase tourism, and improve the local economy, by putting monkey’s on an island – it worked. When we stopped for a bit on one of the islands, I learned that some of my new Irish buddies were huge NFL fans – they have been to a couple preseason games in the states; Brian even takes work off on the Monday following the Super Bowl.

Finally we stopped at a squat, stone fortress, which served as a lookout against English pirates (including Captain Morgan), to watch the sunset.

Kay’s mom (Susan) picked us up the next day to take us down to her hotel in Las Salinas (about 45 minutes North of San Juan del Sur). We stopped briefly at the markets in Masaya, which unfortunately smelled like fish and raw meat. I did get to practice my Spanish though: I talked to a man wearing a Barcelona jersey for a while – his favorite player was Messi. Classic.

Susan’s place is incredible. Four white, red-roofed casitas line one side of the tidy grass yard, while a large hammock deck lines the opposing fence. Surrounded by lush pastures, sloping green hills and the Pacific Ocean, ‘Garden Grove’ is beautiful. It is so homey and relaxed.

Las Salinas

That night we sat out on the porch and watched heat-lightning storms out off the coast. Every couple of seconds the dark, enormous sky would be illuminated by a quick flash, as jagged, horizontal bolts danced between the clouds.

Prior to dropping me off at Sea-Tac exactly one week ago, Max and Tori told me that I “wasn’t allowed to be alone on my birthday” (September 25th – tomorrow). Well, it just so happens that Kay’s birthday is the 26th so we are having a joint birthday party – piñata and all.

I cannot thank all of the awesome people I’ve met so far for helping me to ease into this experience. I am definitely outside my comfort zone, but I am at peace – I am enjoying the challenge. Being that I have time, I think I am going to go to Isla de Ometepe next, a huge island on Lake Nicaragua, which boasts two volcanoes.

Nicaragua is a beautifully real place.

Granada at sunset

Granada at sunset

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