Wednesday, June 4, 2014


May 27, 2014

I slept pretty well despite a saggy mattress.  It was actually quite comfortable if I got into the right spot.  I didn’t want to wake the girls, so I just hung out and used the internet until they got up.  The free pancakes were self-service, but the batter had cinnamon in it and they were tasty enough.  After breakfast, I went to the bank and then to the post office to mail some postcards.  I picked up my clean laundry and lugged it back to the hostel, stopping to buy bananas from a street vendor along the way.  By then, I was overheated, so I hung out for a bit and drank a bottle of orange juice until I felt up to going out again.

Bombed out Church of San Sebastian
My first planned stop was the Museum of Legends and Traditions.  It was off the map I was using and I only knew in which direction it was, not how far.  Nicaragua has a very different system for locating places than that to which we are accustomed in the United States.  While the streets do technically have names, there are almost no street signs and houses are not numbered.  Nicaraguans start with a landmark and then tell you how many blocks and in which direction to go to find your desired location.  An address would be something like Cathedral, 4 blocks east, 2 blocks north.  While this is somewhat confusing, it actually works pretty well for travelers.  The upside is that Nicaraguans all know exactly how many blocks away something is.  They give good directions.  Unfortunately, I walked right past the museum, which was actually off on a side street.  I walked down to the church of Guadelupe, around that and on to the cemetery before I gave up and trekked back up the hill.  Along the way, I saw the church of San Sebastian, which had been bombed into oblivion during the 1979 air strikes.  Workers were chipping the plaster off what remained of the structure, possibly in preparation for repairs.  There really wasn’t much left of the original structure.  The ruins looked as old as the ones in Antigua which were 200 years older. 

The Museum of the Revolution
I was hot and a little frustrated, so stopped at a nice restaurant called Sesteo off the main plaza to eat some lunch.  I had a tasty shredded pork quesadilla.  After lunch, I walked across the plaza to the Museum of the Revolution.  There isn’t a whole lot to the museum, but it is staffed by veterans of the war who make excellent guides if you speak Spanish.  My guide, Juan, had been in combat at the age of fourteen.  He walked me all around the museum and explained every photograph to me.  He insisted I take a picture of him under the photograph of his unit on the wall.  The men who work there are very serious about educating visitors about the war.  When they found out I was from San Francisco, the whole group of them cheered and shook my hand.  Juan related to me the entire history of the revolution from the time Sandino went to Mexico in the 1920’s through his first resistance in the towns of Ocotal and Esteli where we had been, to his assassination after being invited to sign a peace agreement in 1934. 

My Guide, Juan Under His Photo
The Somoza dynasty continued to repress the people, killing students and intellectuals who opposed their regime in 1956.  The revolutionaries attempted uprisings, but didn’t have the arms necessary to defeat the National Guard.  The United States supported Somoza both because the Sandinistas were seen as communists and to protect US interests in the country.  In 1979, the third Somoza was implicated in the killing of an American journalist.  The killing was captured on videotape.  The United States withdrew its support from Somoza and the Sandinistas finally acquired the necessary arms and ran the third Somoza out of the country.  He was later assassinated by an Argentinian in Paraguay.  During the Reagan administration, the United States covertly assisted the reactionary forces (the “Contras”), until the news broke in 1988 that the US was selling arms to Iran to finance the war in Nicaragua.  The resulting scandal put an end to US involvement, the Contras were defeated, and the war finally ended. 
Murals in the Courtyard of the Museum of the Revolution

American Ordnance from the War
The Museum of the Revolution was housed in what was left of the former military headquarters of the National Guard.  It consisted of some murals on the walls of a dirt courtyard and a lot of very degraded photographs in a couple of rooms.  There were a few pieces of US financed ordinance on display.  The museum would have been a yawner if not for the enthusiastic guides who brought the story to life.  One thing that was notable was that women and children had fought on both sides.  Leon is a city built of masonry and it is nearly all crumbling.  Much of the decay is due to age, tropical climate, and lack of resources for repairs, but the process was definitely accelerated by bombs, bullets and rockets during the war.

Museum of Legends and Traditions
Papier-Mache Figures 
Juan had told me where to find the museum of Legends and Traditions, so I headed back down there after I left the Museum of the Revolution.  The museum is housed in the former 21st garrison where Somoza’s National Guard used to torture prisoners.  It is located across the street from the bombed out church of San Sebastian.  From the cathedral, it is half a block to the right, on the street before San Sebastian.  Today, it has been transformed into a lovely garden.  The murals depicting important events from the war contrast sharply with the goofy papier-mache figures from Leonese history and legend made by the founder, Senora Toruna.  Since I have a history of making giant papier-mache figures, I enjoyed these.  I also enjoyed the beautiful mosaics on the surrounding walls.

Murals Depicting Torture at the 21st Garrison
The Cathedral in Leon
Interior of the Cathedral
The Roof of the Cathedral
                                                                                                                                            I walked back up the hill to the cathedral and went inside to view the architecture and artwork.  The cathedral was begun in 1747 and took 100 years to complete.  It is the largest cathedral in Central America.  Its design was originally approved for construction in Lima, Peru.  The leaders of Leon submitted a more modest, but bogus, design for approval.  Then the architect, Diego Jose de Porres Esquivel, pulled a fast one and built his grand design in Leon.  The current cathedral is the fourth incarnation on the site, the second of which was burned by pirates in 1685.  A modest adobe was used until a more lofty structure was begun.  The artwork inside is notable and I had a moment of deja-vu, recalling all the churches I had visited in Italy.  While the inside is traditional European cathedral, the rooftop, with its numerous white domes, recalls Moorish architecture.  The cathedral is in the process of being replastered.  I climbed the bell tower to visit the roof, where the plastering job has been completed.  It was all snowy white and magnificent.  The view was good, although not spectacular, as the church is not particularly tall.  Visitors were required to remove their shoes before walking on the sparkling plaster.

My "Model"
                                                                                                                                                                                                                        I continued on several blocks west and north from the cathedral to visit the Entomo-logical Museum, but they had closed early.  I passed several interesting churches on the way.  While taking a picture of one of them, a young deaf girl insisted that I take her picture, too.  She enjoyed playing model.  Finding myself in the neighborhood of the grocery store, I stopped to buy a few items and then made the long, hot trek back to the hostel.  It was only 4:00, but I was done in.  I had chugged a bottle of cold water from the grocery store on the way back, but still consumed another bottle of water and a beer when I got back.  I studied a little Spanish and took a nap in a hammock.  After dark, I wandered up the street and ate some tasty fish at a restaurant called Mi Casita that was crumbling colonial on the outside and minimalist modern on the inside.  The fish was called curvina.  It was mild and tasted like tilapia, although Wikipedia says it is a saltwater fish.  Whatever its origin, it was tasty with garlic and lime.  My main goal in going out for dinner was to find iced drinks.  I sucked down a large glass of iced orange juice (fresh squeezed) and a bottle of water with ice.  When the live music started, the volume blasted me out of the restaurant and I returned to the hostel to spend the evening writing.

May 28, 2014

View from Side of Cerro Negro
My ride arrived at 8:00 am to take me to Cerro Negro to go volcano surfing.  Volcano surfing involves hauling your board (about the size and shape of a snowboard) up to the top of a cinder cone and then hurtling back down over the sand and ash.  I was the oldest person in the group by about 30 years, but was the first one to the top.  The view was pretty amazing.  We could see the Pacific Ocean off to one side and the tallest active volcano in Nicaragua off to the other.  Cerro Negro had several craters.  We climbed up to the rim of the main crater, left our boards and protective gear there, and then continued to the summit.  There were bugs everywhere.  They were attracted by the smell of sulphur, but then starved to death because there was nothing for them to eat.  I found myself covered in moths and beetles.  Mammals were then attracted to the feast of dead bugs.  Our guide, Miguel, showed me a picture he had taken of a porcupine sitting right on the summit.

Our Guide, Miguel

Tallest Volcano in Nicaragua in Distance

The Slope We Boarded Down
                 Cerro Negro has a 45 degree slope.  The descent is about 500 meters long.  It is possible to go very fast.  People have been clocked at nearly 100 kilometers per hour.  Before descending, we had to suit up in elbow and knee pads, silly canvas jumpsuits that fit no one, goggles, and gloves.  There were two options.  One could either descend sitting, which tended to be faster, or standing like a snowboard.  Since I had never mastered the art of snowboarding, I elected to sit.  I doubt I was going exceptionally fast, but it felt like I was flying.  Dirt was spraying into my fact and I couldn’t see a thing.  I fell off a few times, but never lost my board and was able to get back on and continue.  One of the girls chickened out and had to be walked down.  A couple of the guys took spectacular spills, but no one was injured on the way down.  A young man from Germany fell off the path on the way up and scratched his knee.

My Volcano Surfboard
We all looked like chimney sweeps by the time we got to the bottom.  We waited to collect the whole group and watched people sliding down the slope.  When our whole group had descended, we hiked back to the van and had a snack of fruit before driving back to Leon.  The road to Cerro Negro was an adventure in itself.  Nearly all of it was dirt and we had to keep backing up to let oxcarts or horse drawn wagon go past.  On the way out, we passed an entire herd of Brahma cattle.  Despite having spent half an hour dusting myself off before leaving and more time in the courtyard of the hostel, I still dumped a large quantity of volcanic material on the floor of the bathroom when I disrobed.  I took a long shower before I felt some semblance of clean again.

One of Many Patios at the Art Museum
Ortiz Gurdian Art Museum
                              We got back about 2:00.  By the time I had showered and grabbed a quick lunch of tuna and crackers, it was nearly 3:00.  I was tired, but wanted to accomplish something else before the end of the day, so set off for the nearby Ortiz Gurdian Art Museum.  The museum occupied an entire block of large houses that had been joined together.  It was a labyrinth of rooms and patios, all of which were open to the air.  The collection was extensive and began with 15th century Spanish and Italian pieces.  It covered Latin American art from the Spanish conquest to the present day.  There were pieces by Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Braque and Diego Rivera.  The contemporary works were dominated by figurative pieces depicting the agony of repression.  There was also a very nice 3-D rendering of the park they plan to make out of the ruins of San Sebastian (the church destroyed by air strikes in 1979.) They have already erected the roof over the site and are planning a level floor, planters and attractive lighting at night.  It reminded me of the lovely monument that the City of Berlin made out of the Marienkirche, destroyed in WWII.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed.  It was a very nice museum and in the best repair of anything I had seen since leaving Guatemala.  I spent nearly two hours there and was ready to fall into a hammock with a cold beer by the time I returned.  I spent the rest of the evening doing as little as possible.

May 29, 2104

Thursday was kind of a wasted day.  I could have said it was a rest day, but I really didn’t need a rest day before heading off for a week at the beach.  I had a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and pineapple and sipped a cup of coffee.  Then I walked over to the bank to withdraw enough cash to pay for my week at the beach, since the lodge didn’t accept credit cards.  For the third time, I walked across town to the entomological museum and finally found it open, although that may only have been because I arrived just as the caretaker was buying a papaya from a street vendor.  She had to take the covers off all of the cases so I could see the bugs.  The museum was in the front half of someone’s patio.  There were a lot of impressive bugs, but not much in the way of useful curation.  I did manage to identify the huge flying insects that had attacked me as cicadas.  For some reason, I had thought cicadas were more grasshopper-like.  These were more like giant, long winged flies. 
Iguana at Tortuga Booluda

On the way back from the museum, I stopped for a smoothie.  Then I tried to buy a cellular modem for my computer like everyone used in El Salvador, since the internet at the hostel was so poor that I couldn’t post to my blog without it timing out.  Unfortunately, they were not yet available in Nicaragua.  It felt like a conspiracy.  I went back to the hostel and spent the afternoon reading, writing and studying Spanish and then had a late lunch of pizza, which was enough to insure that I would be lazy all evening, as well.

May 30, 2014

The girls got up early and moved to the dorms.  They were planning to go volcano surfing and wouldn’t be back until after checkout time.  We said our goodbyes.  It was fun traveling with others for a bit, but I was ready to be on my own for a bit.  Our “triple” room had three beds, but not much floor space.  I was feeling a bit cramped.  It was nice having the room to myself for a few hours.

Mural at Bigfoot Hostel
The night desk clerk had told me to remind him to make a shuttle reservation in the morning.  When I tried to do so, there was a different clerk who told me I had to physically go to the Bigfoot Hostel to make the reservation.  The Bigfoot Hostel was on the other side of town, but it was overcast and relatively cool, so I didn’t mind the walk.  The clerk at the Bigfoot Hostel told me to go across the street to the Get Up Stand Up Surf Shop to make my reservation.  They had no problem taking my money, but didn’t really know how the shuttle worked.  They told me to ask the Bigfoot Hostel.  What I was able to gather was that I had better get myself and my luggage to the Bigfoot Hostel by noon if I wanted to be sure of a ride.  Fortunately, the fare was only $4 and there was another one at 3:00, so there wasn’t much at risk. 

Mausoleum of Heros and Martyrs
I had been looking for the monument to the Heroes and Martyrs of the Revolution for several days.  I just randomly decided to take a closer look at what appeared to be a half-finished sculpture in a park near the cathedral and was surprised to find that I was looking at the memorial.  There was supposed to be an eternal flame, but it was unlit.  What I had thought was rebar sticking out of the top, were actually empty flag poles.  The general effect was rather sad.  The mausoleum was raised by the mothers of the dead, who have probably passed on by now, leaving fewer people to maintain the site.  Each grave had a headstone surrounding the “torch.”  Murals were painted on the walls of the buildings adjacent to the park.

Mural at Heroes and Martyrs Monument

Horse Parking
                                                                                                                                    I went back to the hostel to hang out until it was time to schlep my bags to the Bigfoot Hostel.  I marveled at the number of horse-drawn vehicles competing with cars and trucks for parking and threading their way through traffic.  Almost all construction materials and debris were carried in wagons.  Our street featured a newly burned out building and another that was being gutted.  All over town were facades held up by braces as the structure behind was being replaced.  Apparently, Leon was trying to maintain its colonial appearance, at least on the outside.  Unfortunately, that extended to crumbling sidewalks, missing cobblestones, and uncovered water meters and sewer clean-outs.  It was a miracle that the whole town wasn’t on crutches.
Burned Out Bar

Over the Bar at Bigfoot Hostel
I checked out at 11:00 and rolled my baggage across Leon to the Bigfoot Hostel.  I did my best to take streets paved in asphalt, rather than cobblestones, and to avoid the busiest shopping areas, but I still had to fight my way past the supermarket.  The Bigfoot Hostel looked like a great place for under 25 year old die-hard partiers.   The music was blaring.  My shuttle was supposed to leave at noon.  Unfortunately, about 11:45 a young man appeared to tell me that the noon shuttle was cancelled.  I sat in the lobby, listening to the music and trying to read, until a bit after 2:00 when the volcano boarding group arrived and all packed into the lobby to watch the day’s photos on a TV above the bar.  It got insanely loud and drove me outside to wait on the sidewalk.  It turned out that the shuttle was the big four wheel drive truck that they used to take people volcano boarding.  They packed it full of young people going to the beach to party for the evening, a few kids going to the hostels at the beach and me.  At the last minute, when the truck was already full, I heard someone calling my name and Eliza and Brianna hoisted their packs aboard and jammed themselves in.  They weren’t sure where they were headed, but they were moving to the beach somewhere.

My Cabin at Surfing Turtle
The ride to the beach took a half an hour or so.  It was overcast and reasonably cool at the beach.  They dropped everyone else at the Bigfoot Hostel in Las Penitas and then took me to Poneloya where I could get a boat to the island where the Surfing Turtle Lodge was located.  A newlywed couple from New Zealand had also just arrived and we shared a boat to the island.  The lodge sent a horse drawn carriage to pick us up. 

The Surfing Turtle Lodge was a simple place, but it had everything I needed.  I had reserved a private beachfront cabin with my own bathroom.  The cabin was on stilts and had a thatched roof.  It had a front porch with chairs and a hammock.  It even had a closet.  The whole front was screened with curtains for privacy.  The private rooms were upstairs over the lobby and shared a bathroom.  There was also a dorm on stilts above the beach, which looked pretty fabulous.  There were a few tents pitched under the cabins.  The bar was in the same building as the lobby and featured swings for bar stools.  A separate building housed the kitchen, with a large covered eating area in front.  Everyone was very friendly.  A few dogs and a litter of kittens completed the picture.
The Beach at Surfing Turtle

I unpacked, had a couple of beers, and ate a hamburger for dinner.  After dinner, I hung out in the lobby for a while, using the internet.  Despite being off the grid, the internet was better than it had been in Leon.  Finally, I retired to the hammock on my front porch to watch the lightning in the distance and the fireflies sparkling all over the beach.  It was pretty magical.

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