Emily’s turn in Nicaragua

Andy came back from Spanish school in Nicaragua knowing more Spanish than I do, which I could not allow. (Kidding. Mostly.)

I went to the same program, at the Latin American Spanish School in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, this last week. Four hours of private instruction per day, plus a week’s homestay with a local family, all meals included, totaled $270 — about half the cost of similar programs in Costa Rica.

My teacher Lucia and I spent mornings in conversation, then she drilled me on conjugating verbs in the tenses I didn’t have down yet. I’m still by no means fluent, but my comprehension improved, and taxi drivers and border agents are starting to compliment my Spanish. (A German friend living in England once told me you’ll know you’ve mastered a language when people stop complimenting you on how well you speak it.)

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Me with my wonderful Spanish teacher Lucia Garcia, on the balcony at the Latin American Spanish School in central San Juan del Sur

San Juan del Sur was a small fishing village until the mid-1990s or thereabouts, when foreign investors started snapping up cheap property, building hotels and restaurants, and turning the area into a party destination. The Nicaraguan government subsequently raised taxes in that region, so some locals struggle to get by. Most homes don’t have hot water or air conditioning; the energy prices are prohibitive. 

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The kitchen in the family home where I stayed. You wash your hands by dunking a bowl into the water in the cement tub on the right, soaping your hands in the bowl and dumping the dirty water down the laundry sink.

I stayed with the familia Flores — mother Sylvia and father Pedro, their several grown children and one toddler grandchild who cried at the sight of the red-headed gringa. Doña Sylvia is evangelical Christian and told me, hand held to my stomach, that if I pray to God I can still have babies even though I’m old. But she makes a mean gallo pinto, so I shrugged it off.

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Señora Sylvia Flores and me. One afternoon I told her I’d eat dinner at a restaurant that night so don’t worry about cooking for me, but she hung her head in so much sadness I immediately relented.

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Some of the food was new to me, like this traditional sopa de pescado. I’m an adventurous eater but can get a little squeamish when my food has eyes. Thankfully the flavor was lovely and delicate. I’m a convert.

 

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The showerhead.

While a lot of my time was taken up with studying, I did manage to get some long walks in and go to yoga classes every evening at a beautiful upper-deck, open-air studio in town called Zen Yoga. On my last night, Lucia and another teacher from the school, Vanessa, invited me to an event at El Timón restaurant on the beach. A local troupe performed traditional dances, and a salsa teacher gave us a short lesson before the killer band — horns, three singers, the works — played for the rest of the night. My teachers, their friends and I shook our nalgas and had a blast, until a drunk Bulgarian dude thought it’d be a fun game to chase me around the dance floor, rattling a pair of maracas he stole from the band.

My visit coincided with the days leading up to la gritería, a Nicaraguan celebration honoring Mary’s immaculate conception. It’s sort of like a Catholic Halloween: People go from house to house collecting little gifts, like soap or matches or cookies, from families who wish to give thanks for the prayers Maria answered during the year. Celebrants clap and yell-sing “¿Quien causa tanta alegría? ¡LA CONCEPTIÓN DE MARÍA!” (“What causes so much happiness? THE CONCEPTION OF MARY!”). Bands play marches and kiddos set off fireworks in the square. The constant explosions could be distracting during Spanish and yoga classes, but good luck not submitting to the festive atmosphere. It’s a pretty magical time to visit Nicaragua, provided you’re a sound sleeper or bring high-quality earplugs.

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One of the world’s tallest Jesus statues lords over (get it???) the bay of San Juan del Sur.

Solo Andy va a Nicaragua

I’m in Nicaragua! It’s been just about ninety days since Emily and I drove into Costa Rica, so I had to renew my visa by hopping across the border. (Emily renewed hers in October by going to California for work.) Rather than do a one day border run, I decided to take a weeklong Spanish class in the beautiful, touristy beach town of San Juan del Sur.

I bought a TicaBus ticket while we were out in Sámara and selected Villa Bonita, Alejuela as my departure point. I didn’t really know how I’d get there when I bought the ticket, but luckily Costa Rica has a pretty solid bus system, or system of systems.

On Saturday, I hit the road at 5:30 a.m. The bus from Atenas to San Jose stops at Villa Bonita – specifically, on the highway at the overpass going to Villa Bonita. I hopped off the bus, climbed up the hill to the overpass, then crossed over to get to the northbound side of the highway.

Villa Bonita overpass

Standing at the NB bus stop looking at the SB stop at Villa Bonita

 

Not knowing how long the local bus would take, I got there super early. During my 1.5 hour wait, a NicaBus stopped and appeared to have some mechanical problems. It was there about an hour and hadn’t left by the time my bus came.

Nicabus broke down in villa bonita

Not a good advertisment for NicaBus.

 

Unlike the local buses, which typically require one to wave them down to stop, the international buses know you’re there because of your reservation. The driver took my ticket, told me my seat number, and we hit the road.

Here’s what happens at the border. It was pretty easy, but your mileage may vary:

  1. The bus stops on the Costa Rican side of the border. Get off the bus with the receipt for your exit tax (payable at Banco Nacional before your trip), passport, TicaBus ticket, and the exit form for immigration. Stand in line, then hand passport, receipt, and exit form over. Get exit stamp.
  2. Get back on the bus – a TicaBus employee will ask for your seat number or find your name on their list before you board.
  3. While the bus is driven to the Nicaragua entry point, a TicaBus employee asks for passports and  your entry tax for Nicaragua. For me, that was $14 (exact change preferred).
  4. Get off the bus with luggage, grabbing any luggage stowed in the cargo hold. Bypass the folks selling SIM cards and the line in the building and proceed through the door to the baggage scanner. Put your bags on the conveyor belt and hand over your immigration/customs form. Grab your bags and head back to the bus.
  5. Load your cargo on the bus based on your destination in Nicaragua, as directed by the not-necessarily-uniformed baggage handlers. Get back on the bus.
  6. The bus will drive a little ways then park again. Get off the bus if you want and wait. A Ticabus employee will arrive with a stack of passports and start reading names aloud. Retrieve your passport and get back on the bus.
  7. Sit back and enjoy “The Hobbit” dubbed in Spanish.

While hopping on and off the bus, I met John Johnson. Previously from Georgia, he and his wife have worked with a Christian ministry school for troubled youth in Nicaragua for the past 25 years. He was returning home after attending a conference in San Jose about microlending, which is his passion. He told me stories of his successes and failures in microlending – a woman with a coffee cart who is doing great selling coffee on cold mornings at bus tops, the perils of lending money to a person who has an alcoholic in her family, and a former student whose refrigerator, provided by their loan, has him selling meats and other perishable goods from home to provide for his family. That man, who previously called asking for money, now calls to ask John and his wife to visit. Cool stuff.

On the road north, a TicaBus employee asked for everyone’s destinations. Mine was Rivas, so I told him that. Upon arrival in Rivas, I got off the bus and was immediately directed toward a taxi. I didn’t have the willpower to resist, so I just went along with it. The taxi was $25, which isn’t crazy for a 30 minute trip, but is certainly way more expensive than a local bus. Hopefully I can do better on the way back.

When I arrived at the Latin American Spanish School at about 2:30 p.m., I was greeted by Lorgia, my teacher for the week. I filled out some paperwork, paid for the classes and homestay, then we walked a few blocks to where I’m staying this week.

Homestay accomodations in Nicaragua

Mi cuarto en la casa de Carmen.

 

In a situation that’s typical of many families here, Carmen’s is a multi-generational household. She’s the madre de la casa and her daughters, their kids, and their spouses all live here. Full house!

The first and only rule of the house is, “No Chicas!” Este no es un problema.

Part of the homestay deal is three meals per day. The food is great and I’m full all the time. Here’s what happened when I told Emily about it:

Sometimes we joke about stereotypical gender roles

 

I wandered around town yesterday for a few hours listening to Coffee Break Spanish and exploring. Here are a few photos from that experience.

 

Boys playing baseball on the beach

Los niños juegan béisbol en la playa.

 

A parade, because why not? Watch out for flying hard candy.

 

San Juan del Sur beach panorama

Another photo in the beach panorama series.