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.)
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.
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.
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.