Tuesday, February 26, 2013
The hostel is a non-profit, and fully funds the educational programs of Sonati, which provides free education to kids, teaching them about nature, sustainability, and environmental conservation (very needed down here).
I am fully convinced that this is one of the non-evil NGOs...the founder/owner/director only earns $300/month. I am totally down with the mission and the model of the organization (they don't depend on donations, because the hostel income funds the educational programs).
Taking this position would really really give me the chance to solidify my burgeoning Spanish skills, and to explore a dream I have of someday opening/owning my own backpacker's hostel.
Here's the dilemma: first of all I have a friend coming down to meet me in Costa Rica in March to travel, a promise I am looking forward to keeping. Second, I would really like to take my April flight back to NYC to see family and friends, and to celebrate with them some upcoming major life events going on through May. Plus its festie season. Third, I was hoping to travel in South America for a few months (or more) this summer. And finally, let's not even talk about how it means yet another year without higher-er education, gainful employment, or savings.
Got some thinking to do...
Monday, February 18, 2013
"Cent cinquante cordobas, mon dieu!" I hear Mateo booming in his sarcastic (and comedically stereotypical) French voice.
I wipe the sleep from my eyes as I step down from the antique school bus, sweat dripping down my back, knees throbbing. I've long ago gotten used to the habit of elevating my knees to try to fit pressed against the seat ahead of mine. I think the limited blood flow helps me sleep.
"Cet homme dit que nous pouvons faire du camping près du canon pour seulement 150 cordobas par nuit!" Mateo goes on informing the group, gesturing towards a guide called Osman, a well dressed man sporting a high and neat haircut, motorcycle helmet in hand.
"Mais, nous l'avons déjà fait des réservations pour un séjour en famille ce soir avec Henri", replies Laetiticia, reminding him that she has already gone through the trouble of organizing our entire overnight excursion to the Cañon de Somoto, twice now. Mateo and Julia overslept this morning and we missed the chance to make this a day trip. Didieur got upset, Cedric felt ill, and it wasn´t until late afternoon that we were able to hit the road for the 2 hour ride up north towards the Honduran border.
In that time, Laetiticia made contact with a local guide named Henri and (after missing our initial reservation) re-negotiated the fair price of 20 bucks for the a full day tour and 7 buck for accommodation with host families.
"Umm...Español, sil vouz plait?", I mumble through crusty eyes, not sure what language I am, should, or could be speaking.
"Ah, désolé! Vamos a hablar en Español," Julia directs the group; a Belgin couple (Laetiticia and Cedric), a French couple (Mateo and Julia) and their third wheel, Didier.
We discuss our options, as 150 cordobas is about a buck fifty cheaper than the price we had arranged with Henri, and camping would be fun. As we debat, Osman anxiously awaits his chance to enter the conversation (a fast mix of French, English, and Spanish) and takes the opportunity to throw in a bigger option: The same price for a full day tour with all equipment and camping, PLUS water and two included meals. An added value of about 200 cords each.
At this he has me sold, but not the French trio. "You Americans spoil them and pay anything like Disneyland, we can do better than that," laughs Mateo in a friendly voice, commencing a hilarious negotiation with Osman that takes over a hour. Laetiticia plays good cop, Mati bad, their spouses and Didier and I caught in the crossfire, pointing out whatever we can along the way to try to sweeten the pot.
At first, it comes down to $25, then $20, then finally $15 per person, for the full day tour and camping, plus two meals and entrance fees. We have to buy water and pay for our own transportation, but Osman promises a diverting night on a private river beach with endless stars and a bonfire. Deal.
Fair is fair: Mateo phones Henri to ask if he will make the same deal. He refuses. We cancel. He´s not happy.
Finding supplies is a challenge, as the bus to the park entrance (Osman's family owns a mud-brick home along the river within the natural reserve) is scheduled to leave in 10 minutes and we don't have time to go the supermarket. We need the two most valuable fluids in Nicaragua; water and rum. Split up. Girls find water, guys find rum. Don't get ripped off.
Water from a gift ship, take-away rum from a cantina. The water is more expensive than the rum. Classic.
Fast forward 45 minutes and a cramped bus ride later. We arrive at the park entrance. Henri is there waiting for us, no shirt, quite tall. He smiles, but rather aggressively tries to convince us to take his tour. Folks on the bus have seen this before. They surround us in front of Henri and pull us back on the bus before we can even really interpret the situation. Just 20 meters further down the road, we are dropped off again, at a smaller entrance to the reserve. Osman is there one his moto smiling nicely, waiting for us. He rides slowly along side us as we walk down the trail 250m to the ranger station.
After a brief lecture about the region and what the tour will entail, we unpack the necessary supplies for the camp-out and leave our big bags in the ranger station. Osman leads us on a short (45min) hike into the reserve along the river, and teaches us that the Cañon de Somoto is actually called Namancambre by locals and was only declared a national monument and a national park in 2005 when it was "discovered" by a group of Czech scientists. Discovered. Please.
|*Not really my photo|
The night was full of coffee, ron, and conversation in Spanglais (Spanish-English-French) about the cultural differences between American, French, and Latin American cultures.
The next morning, its the crow of the roosters that wakes me at sunrise. I can hear the kids on the sand, running and playing, their yells echoing off the canon wall across the river. I throw on my jacket in the cold of the morning air, and unzip my tent door to find a fine mist rolling around the river bend, low on the water. It´s cold, so I light a fire simply by dropping some dry grass, then twigs, then charred logs onto the still glowing coals from last night´s fogata. The Frenchies wake up, and we pack the camp and head up to the ranger station for our breakfast of fresh gallo pinto, heuvos, and tortillas. The coffee is sweet, and I'm the only one who tries it before adding extra sugar. Thank god.
Sunscreen, water, life vests, fruit. We pile into the back of a pick-up truck and drive 10 minutes to the start of the trail. It´s an hour hike through dry forest 'till we get back to the river. It starts off easy, a pebble walk along the shore. Then the walls of the canon begin to rise on both sides and we start a scramble over the larger rocks in the river. The walls get higher, and the rocks get further apart so we don our life vests and toss cameras into Osman´s dry-bag (my camera broke two weeks ago, so I've got to wait for the french guys to post their shots on FB). The rest of the day is a 10k float through a gorgeous canyon (pun intended?). Every so often, bored of the float, or tired from swimming, but certainly intrigued by the challenge, I make my way to the edge of the river and climb up onto the canyon wall. Slowly and deliberately, I feel my way across the steep rock wall, climbing up and down to get the most secure hold as I trail behind the rest of the group. Warm sun on the rocks feels great on my pruney skin. Osman, points out the areas with deep water, so I am able to make jumps of 5, 10, 20, even 30 feet.
At the end of the day, we take a short boat ride through the last part of the canyon, passing the sandy beach area where we camped, waving goodbyes to Osman's cousins.
These photos are for illustrative purposes only, as My camera is broken, buy this is Cañon de Somoto, promotional pics from the Hostel's facebook page...my life vest was red:
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
So sorry that I haven't written you! They don't always have internet here in Nicaragua. I am now living in a town called Estelí, its the third largest city in the country.
I took Spanish lessons in Grenada for a while, I really wanted to be able to speak with Nicaraguans in their language. I thought I could speak Spanish before, but wow! I have really had to study a lot!
In San Juan del Sur, I celebrated Australia Day (like July 4th for Australians) with about a hundred Aussies all on vacation. Those guys like to party! How funny, to celebrate an Australian holiday in Nicaragua.
I went volcano boarding at Cerro Negro, near León. You suit up and sled down the side of the volcano--I went almost 50mph! The ash and rock fly at you, and you have struggle to keep balanced. Check out the picture.
So now I'm staying in Estelí in the mountains. I am volunteering at an environmental education center, helping to teach about conservation and recycling. The weather is much cooler up here (but not as cold as NYC!). I can take hikes here, and swim in waterfalls. And every wall in the town has a mural painted on it. They tell stories of farmers, children, love, struggle...Its beautiful and very unique.
After I leave here, I might volunteer on an organic farm for a while, or maybe I'll climb Volcano Arenal. I know that I'll return to Costa Rica, and I want to see Panama too. I'll be home to visit in the spring!
Miss you guys, stay in touch!
Jake (Mr. Nacheman)
Ps. Send me your postal address and I'll mail you a post card.
(I feel kind of bad about putting this online, in case someone Google searches the finca, so I'm not going to include the farm name)
So here´s what happened: Literally on my way out the door of Big Foot Hostel in Léon, I stopped at the bar to refill my water bottle, and to confirm directions to the bus station where I was to grab my bus to Mataglapa. The girl working at the bar asked me what I was up to in Matagalpa, and I told here that I would be WWOOFing at a farm located an hour so out of town in a very rural area. She stopped chewing her toast and swallowed dry. "Whats the name of the farm?" she asked gravely. "El Y#####, with Miguel". "Don't go there, it´s terrible. My boy friend and I went there and we had a horrible experience..." She told me all about it: Apparently, there is only one bus from Matagalpa each day (at 5pm) that arrives at the foot of a mud road in the dark. You then need to walk an hour and a half in the dark, with all your belongings, to get to the farm. Ok, so this a knew in advance; I wasnt yet convinced. She told me that Miguel said he would meet them at the road to guide them up and help them with their bags, possibly with a horse. No such luck. They had to grope through the dark alone and guess where the entrance was. When they arrived, Miguel was there, but only to have them sign a waver; the next morning, he left before telling them where he was going. No tour, no explanations, no welcome. They were aroused before sunrise and told that they had to go out into the coffee fields. No breakfast, no time to make breakfast, no explanations. They worked until the afternoon and found the kitchen to make something for lunch. Most farms provide meals to volunteers, but there was just rice and raw beans. Raw beans take a day to cook. No where to buy food, and no veggies, so they made just rice-- no oil, no spices, no salt.
The next morning was a repeat, no Miguel, no time to eat. And they had a leña in the kitchen which requires time to light a fire and heat up the stove, so if they wanted to eat they would have to get up way before dawn to prepare a fire. Oh yea, and nothing but rice.
Still, all this would have been within my expectations, except that Miguel had promised the opportunity to work on self-generated projects. Hence why I have the schematics for a solar hot water heater and reservoir in my backpack, and why I spent a month studying DIY videos before I left. But even more than any of this, the reason I finally decided to change my plans was because of what this girl told me about the social make up of the place, and the people there. The volunteers were treated more like free labor than volunteers, interacted with only to be directed, with no one to approve of or provide materials for projects.
More, she told me that there were hardly any volunteers there, and that they didn't interact. All of the few volunteers that she had met were unhappy, and they were mostly leaving right away, or leaving soon, or just plain weird...and this coming from a hardcore traveler sandal wearing Rasta-chick.
This part was the most important to me. I'm traveling alone, so it´s important to me to be in places where I can make new friends and start new relationships; even for just a short period of time.
So I threw that dream out the window. I really wanted to learn permaculture, to provide support to a community in need, to work with my hands with the sun on my back, to get in shape working off the land. Alas, that's what you get for making plans.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”
― Lao Tzu
So my plans changed...
Here´s what happened: Crestfallen, I threw my bag into the public storage at Bigfoot. I had already packed my bag and said all my goodbyes to the fast friends I had made at the hostel in just a few short days. Once I say goodbye, I don't like to walk back in all, "I changed my mind, I'm gonna stay another night!" Its tough, this transient lifestyle, working to open yourself up to new people (so thoroughly different from yourself) at incredible speeds knowing you only have at most a few days to bond--and then after such intense sharing of feelings, memories, and experiences, saying goodbye knowing the chances of ever meeting again is slim. The most you can do is swap contacts and hope they tag you in photos. So in short, saying goodbye is hard, but necessary, and never the last.
...So, I needed to make a new plan and quick. I remembered taking a trek up in Xela, Guatemala to Volcan Tajamulco with an organization called Quetzaltrekkers and that they had a branch in Leon. It was a great trek and I thought I could totally be a guide on a hike like that...maybe I could volunteer as a guide with them?
I showed up at their office and was immediately informed that I would need to make a three month commitment to begin the process of training to be a guide. I guess its harder than it looks. Anyway, they referred me to another non-for profit tour company and hostel down the street called Sonati. At their office I was told the same thing about getting trained to be a guide; I would need to make a long term commitment and I didn't want to promise more than two or three weeks, possibly a month. However, their branch up in Estelí needed volunteers to help run the hostel and facilitate the organization.
Ok, quick tangent to explain Sonati. Check out their website. Its a no-for-profit environmental education center that provides classes about conservation and recycling for children here in Nicaragua. They are based out of León and Estelí, respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest cities in Nicaragua. Unlike many NGOs, Sonati is not donation reliant as the two hostels (run by volunteers like me) garner profits, 100% of which is used to provide the educational service. This from Sonati.org:
SONATI model: sustainability & monetary responsibility
The common problem: Non-profits rely on the good will of donors for their existence, asking constantly for money to maintain their activities, important as they may be.
SONATI model: In SONATI we implement a successful business model into the non-profit model: we create a competitive business with non-profit ethics: our business doesn't have an owner, profits do not finance private wealth - instead we invest profits to finance our environmental projects.
In SONATI we rely on donations only to establish new SONATI sites where we implement a sustainable model, so such a donation is a one-time donation that lasts forever!
The NGOs "fame": Too many times money finances too many administrative costs and too few actual activities.
SONATI model: Activities are the first priority. All salaries in SONATI are fair local salaries, but by all means not high (also at local standards). At present, highest salary at SONATI (director post) is $300/ month.
So, that all sounds pretty good. And it's a pretty fun place to work too. Sonati Estelí isn't the biggest or most popular hostel, nor is it even represented in the book (that's Lonely Planet, bible to the backpacker). I think that most guests hear about it through Sonati Leon, and through word of mouth. Its very chill, there's only one other volunteer here besides me right now, a girl from Bristol, and groups tend to come and go. There´s no bar or restaurant in the hostel but folks do tend to hang out in the massive backyard and several common areas. Loud parties some nights, and quiet discussions others, its a great place to get to know people as they pass through.
Estelí is located a midst several national nature reserves, jungles, and cloud forests, all of which I still need to explore with the exception of one that I have already been to several times. It's got a beautiful waterfall and river down which you can rock-scramble several kilometers, encountering all sorts of plant and animal life along the way. The waterfall cascades down from a cliff about 50 meters above, collecting in a beautiful deep pool that's cool, but amazing for a vigorous swim. Yesterday, I leveled up my experience, climbing along the sheer rock wall and jumping in at various heights. Also in the area are endless pastures, farmlands, orchards, and woods. The other day, a group of us went bird watching all over the farmlands and communities of rural Estelí. We saw raptors, hummingbirds, swallows, woodpeckers, exotic birds, and more; beautiful in their natural habitats.
Anyway, more to updates to come as I explore the area more thoroughly!
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
I still hadn't been to the clubs down on Lake Nicaragua, a dangerous walk, or a cab ride 5km down the main drag to the lakefront. There were three of us guys hanging out in the hostel that night, Kevin (a French Canadian whom I had met and enjoyed hanging out with in the treehouse) and Stijn (pronounced something like "Stan", a dutch guy from the dorms). We cooked a meal of tilapia, and rice, and Bravah and put on our dancing shoes...erm volcano-destroyed sneakers...and took a 20c/pp cab (haggled down to 50c for 3!) down to the lake.
We asked the cab driver to take us to the most popular club and he did, but it seemed pretty empty for a Friday night, so we walked around to a few other bars. This was all along the lakefront. No beaches or docks, just grass or dirt up to the waters edge, and plastic table and chair resto-bars every 50feet. A heavy, cool wind blew off the water to the "zona tourista", an area designed to accommodate way more local (and international) fiesteras than seemed to be present.
We didn't find another club that was much more active, and the strip was rather deserted and felt unsafe, so we returned to "Chico Tripa 2", the first place we went to. There was a 50c entrance fee, but I talked the bouncer down to 100c for the three of us. We entered to find a decent crowd, though it looked tiny inside the giant resto-bar, composed entirely of Nicas, not one other gringo or chele (white guy) in the place.
At first, we felt pretty out of place. There was a 10 piece salsa band playing with awesome red cowboy costumes. The three lead singers seemed like brothers, the oldest in sheer black leather pants, the middle one with a cleft and a 10 gallon hat, and the youngest couldn't have been even 12 years old--reminiscent of a Latino MJ. We ordered a few Toñas and tried to chat over the blasting music until we had built up enough liquid courage to try our moves on the huge dance floor, packed with expert salsa-ers. I didn't really remember any steps from previous salsa lessons, but I followed the beat and rounded out my hips, throwing in a few bar-mitzvah moves when it felt right. The locals loved it...sure, maybe they were laughing at (not with) us, but we had fine none the less, taking turns with all the sisters and wives out on the floor.
The next morning, I got up to brush my teeth and found Cesar coming to get me from the dorms. He pulled me into the gift shop (still in just my boxer shorts) to find a postal worker waiting for me to sign a package. I straight up jumped with joy (possible treating the early morning shoppers to a bit more gringo than they expected) and tore the package open to find my new bank card, some batteries for my head-lamp that I cant find down here, and a note from mi mamá (thanks Ma!).
Immediately, I decided to take a detour to León. Volcano boarding was calling to me, and even though waiting for my cards had already made me a few days late in my arrival to the farm in León, I was worried that i wouldn't have a chance to return to the pacific side of the country and knew that boarding was a once in a lifetime kind of experience that I couldn't risk missing. Stijn (the Dutch guy that came out with Kevin (the Quebequis guy from the treehouse) and I last night) was heading that way so we left together, packing our bags, paying out, and grabbing the first bus to Managua. We switched to León and arrived at Bigfoot Hostel (founded by the same guy who supposedly invented volcano boarding).
Let me just take a detour here to define volcano boarding for those of my readers who aren't up to speed on the volcano-based-adventure-sport lingo. "Volcano boarding", or surfing, or sledding, is a less than a decade old sport (activity?) that requires two materials: a board of some kind, and an active young volcano. Cerro Negro, the just 150 year old volcano an hour outside León, Nicaragua is just this. In fact, unlike many of the volcanoes that I have climbed, this one really just seems like a huge pile of rubble--sharp, black, pumice. Mostly <1-2cm stones with bigger rocks and boulders mixed in throughout. The mountain is hot, painful to the touch at the rim of the crater, and smoking a sulfuric mist all over (not just in the crater). The wind rips at you all the way up the modest 728m climb. Hardly a trail due to the loose crumbly nature of the pile, climbing the sendero is an upward swim through hot black rock.
In the past decade, since gringos discovered and decided to bastardize Cerro Negro, folks have blasted down the side on all sorts of things. The most popular is the run-down, a 700m scree with the guaranteed prospect of a tumble and slide. People have tried skis, snowboards, sleds, refrigerators, and mountain bikes (that did not end well). Anyway, the improved board that most tour operators use (by most, i mean the like, 3 who run tours) is a home made 4x1foot, 3/4inch thick piece of plywood with an aluminum sheet tacked to the bottom. Its got a leash for a handle attached to the front and a slanted board on the back as a seat. We wore a thick canvas jumpsuit to protect our skin from the pumice on the inevitable spill and tumble, and goggles to see through the cloud of ash generated by the slide. No helmet. Stupid.
The goal of the slide is to go as fast as possible and I made third highest time coming in at 68km/hr! I came nowhere close to numbers one and two though; they had 85 and 90 km/h, insane! I think I'll try it again though. If I don't break with my feet, I think I can blast past 75 or 80. I'm not crazy enough to go any faster.
The problem is with balance. The board has no skeg, it just slides along the surface of the gravel so any change in weight distribution at that velocity results in a tailspin. The smallest tap of a foot on the gravel to the side of the board throws you off, so if you're gonna break, you've got to break evenly and keep your weight centeres. I think that the improved board should have a fin or two like a surfboard, so that it cuts into the gravel and maintains trajectory. That, or I just need to pick up the front and lean back, no breaks.
Well that's enough musing on ways to cut up your face...after boarding, we were rewarded back at Bigfoot with free mojitos and the Superbowl (go Ray Rice!).
Next time, on "The Days of My Lives"...
-Will Jake show up to the farm on time?
-Will Jake´s new bank card actually work?
-Will Jake ever find a traveling partner?
-Will we find out the real mother of Ernesto's evil twin?!
...tune in next time to find out!
I look like blade with my new look
Volcan Cerro Negro, a pile of volcanic gravel
Suited up, ready to die
A crappy pic, but ehh
The sign says sitting route. the other sign is for screeing
Overlooking the crater, me in the shadow
Last chance to chicken out
Blurry pic, but those are the boards, stacked on the truck
Monday, February 4, 2013
Im way late on this post and the details of a few days have already lefty mind...so, I guess that just means that in this post um only going to focus on the things that really stood out to me, and are still stuck in my mind.
Basically, I arrived back in Grenada after SJDS and took a few days more of Spanish classes. My Spanish has gotten a lot better, but as my teacher and I began talking a lot more, I began to get the feeling that she really didn't like me as a person, so I wasn't so motivated to keep studying with her. Add to that the fact that my new ATM card still hadn't arrived, and I was just waiting around in Grenada for a letter, and I was ready to move on.
I packed my small pack for three days, stored my main bag with Cesar at the hostel, and took off for a jaunt at the Poste Rojo Treehouse, just outside of town. I arrived at the base of a high hill shaded in a jungle of trees and flora. The steep path was unpaved and led up the slope through the quiet forest. Occasionally, I could hear the calls of howlers and birds, and the chirping of cicadas washed over me in waves of sound--then silence.
After a 20 minute climb, an empty building appeared in a clearing to my right, but a sign indicated that reception was still a further climb up the hill. Finally, I made it to the top to find a massive treehouse (although, technically, it wasn't sitting in a tree, but among the trees). Three people were there, two volunteers and one guest. Lisbeth, a volunteer, was giving the other two haircuts on the deck.
I checked in, a bit disappointed by the lack of guests as I had really been feeling that I need to make more friends, but consoled by the fact that I could stay on a hammock for just $5. Without any access to my bank, I had been searching for any way to save a buck here and there. The weather was temperate and there was a nice cool breeze, and I was smart enough to remember my sleeping bag. I was quite happy to take a hammock. Plus, there was one hammock on a platform in a tree waay high, maybe 50meters that I was able to claim for myself.
Ok, enough about hammocks.
The four of us hung out watching howlers in the trees until a bunch of other volunteers arrived from town, and a bunch of us arranged to pool food and make a rather good meal of fajitas and beans. The communal meal for sale looked good, but it was meat lasagna and a bit pricy. I was happy to have brought some food up there so that I could cook.
We all hung out and played cards until the early morning. I had fun, but beers cost 35cordobas each (!), so I spent the night drinking water, playing sober sister for all the volunteers drinking at cost... Bed time was interesting; I had to climb up into tree and curl into my sleeping bag without waking the howlers in the beaches above and to the side of me (those guys are scary up close). A few times in the night they would start their calls, and I would awake with a start as their howling is LOUD, and frightening. Spielberg used the howler call for dinosaur roars in Jurassic Park.
When I awoke to these calls, I would sometimes find myself immitating their call in my sleep (must have triggered some primal call-back instinct) and they would turn to look at me. Scary! I shined my light in their eyes and they left me alone.
The next day, I went down to Laguna de Apoyo with Lisbeth. I have heard stories about tourists getting mugged on the trail, so we took nothing with us at all--no bags to attract thieves.
It's a volcanic lake, a massive crater of an exploded volcano that fell in on itself then filled with rainwater and groundwater. The water felt heavy, and it was difficult to swim in. I have heard stories about that lake, about how the water behaves strangely because the lake hides an active volcano beneath. I could feel warm and cold patches in the water, and there seemed to be bubbles coming up from below. It's a strange lake. The security guard at the treehouse told me a story of a time he swam out to the middle of the lake and was caught in a whirlpool that pulled him under and had to fight his way out.
On the long walk down the steep trail into the crater lake, I made friends with two local women who told me all about the region and the lake. They reminded us to use sunscreen, not to swim out into the center of the crater, and to leave with plenty of time to walk home before sundown.
On the way back, we bought rum and veggies to make dinner.
The treehouse was great fun, yoga every morning and cards every night. I got my hair cut (pretty wild, stripes buzzed into the right side of my head), cooked plenty, and had a good time making new friends.