Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Nicaragua Part II


One day, J, a few of her cousins, and I went on a trip to a city called Granada, which is southeast of Managua. Granada is a popular tourist town as it has beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and is located by the water. We took a boat ride off the coast of Granada and rode around the thousands of islands created by a volcanic eruption a long time ago. Many of the islands have houses or hotels on them and two of them had restaurants. We stopped at one to eat some fresh fish and drink Nicaraguan beers. There was even a small pool for the kiddies.

La Catédral de Granada

A view from the boat

Diriamba and the Festival of San Sebastian

Diriamba is a small town known primarily for its clock tower and its annual Festival of San Sebastian, which I was fortunate enough to attend. It is a relatively poor town and most of the residents seemed to own their own businesses and sell goods at the market or provide services such as auto repair or tech support. J's cousin who hosted us, for example, made Nicaraguan cheese, a delightful smoky, salty cheese, in his back patio and sold it at the market. 

The famous clock tower of Diriamba

When I first told J that I would be able to join her on her trip to Nicaragua she mentioned the Festival of San Sebastian and said that she was excited because she had never had a chance to see it before. San Sebastian is the patron saint of Diriamba and the next town over also celebrates its patron saint the week before, so the area basically has a two week long party. She mentioned that there would be a horse parade and that we might even get a chance to ride her uncle's horse. She also said there would be dancing and music and, oh yeah, a bull they light on fire that runs through the streets. A bull on fire? That runs through the streets? She didn't provide any additional detail and I assumed that I had misheard her and later forgot all about it.

The festival lasted a number of days. One day was dancing and music, another day was the horse parade, still another was a re-creation of the Spanish colonialists arriving in Nicaragua. For the latter, male residents dress up in white masks and costumes and dance with each other. Both male and female characters are played by men. It was a strange sight to behold. Later, they had a shrine to San Sebastian which they carried through the town.

Later in the week, J and I arrived late at night and saw that a huge crowd had assembled in the town center. People were squished onto the sidewalks though the streets had been closed to cars for the festival. We waited and waited not knowing what was supposed to happen and finally some fireworks went off. J and I couldn't figure out why people were watching the fireworks from just a few areas of the square. The fireworks were up in the air, so shouldn't they be standing all over? We moved from the very crowded sidewalk onto the street where a few men and teenage boys were standing drinking beer. There was a lot more space there and we enjoyed the fireworks in our spacious spots. Then, all of a sudden, we heard screaming and I just caught a glimpse of what appeared to be fire running through the street. Then I heard J yell "the bull!" We quickly ran to the sidewalk and fought our way through the crowds to get away from the bull just as it rammed itself into a bunch of people. I couldn't see it but I heard screaming and could tell that it was running from one side of the street to the other. "Is that a real bull?" I asked incredulously. J laughed. She explained that it's just a man dressed up as a bull with fireworks shooting off of him. We later found out that teenage boys will intentionally confront the bull in order to obtain burns and scars, which they show off to teenage girls. We left soon after the bull arrived.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Nicaragua Part I

My good friend, J (no, not that J, a different J) invited me to visit Nicaragua with her. J's family hails from there and she visits frequently. I'd never been to Central America and had always wanted to go so I was excited to join her. Little did I know that Nicaragua would mean active volcanoes, fantastic food, and a fiery bull running through the streets. Such fun!


I flew to Managua, the capital city, by way of San Salvador* and arrived late at night. Flying into Managua at night, the most obvious feature was the presence of hundreds of neon trees lining the city's boulevards. I thought they looked nice and inviting but I later found out that they were a little bit controversial. Apparently they were a pet project of the president's wife,** but in a country where electricity is unstable and frequently goes out, it was seen as wasteful.

J's cousin was nice enough to come pick me up from the airport and we made our way to Diriamba, where J's family resides. Managua was foggy at night and its winding roads meant the 25 mile trip to Diriamba took a couple of hours. Though Diriamba is a relatively small town, we were there during a weeklong feast day celebration and so there were often big crowds of people, particularly at night. My friend J was just leaving a music concert and we grabbed some late night dinner from a restaurant with an outdoor grill and patio.

Not a great picture but a good summary of what I ate in Nicaragua: grilled meat, plaintains, beans, and rice.

The next day we went volcano hopping. We started at Mombacho, a volcano which I was told was dormant only to find when we got to the top of it that no one actually knows whether it is active or dormant since steam comes out of the top. We walked around the perimeter of the crater and saw some fantastic views of the surrounding area.

Next up was the active Masaya. You can drive to the top and peer over the edge at the bubbling lava.

A great place to destroy an evil ring.

The Beach and Public Transportation

Even though it was the dead of winter, the temperature in Nicaragua was in the 70s. Since the weather was so nice, we decided to spend a day at the beach at a place called La Boquita. To get to the beach, we took public transportation, which is a little bit different from the public transportation I've used in other countries. For one thing, the vehicles consist of minivans and donated school buses. And the vehicles do not have set times or stops. Instead, they leave when they are completely full (and when I say "completely full" I mean every seat is taken, people are standing in the spaces between the seats, and in the case of the minivan, people are holding onto the door and hanging out of the vehicle) and stop wherever people ask them to stop along the route. Because the vehicles are so packed with people, you get to know your fellow riders very well. For most of the ride to La Boquita, I had a man's sweaty armpit in my face. Fortunately, it wasn't a long trip.

A picture of us taking public transportation.

Seafood stew at the beach: lobster, crab, shrimp, raw turtle eggs, and some type of fish, with a side of plaintains and rice.

What we didn't realize when we took public transportation was that it stopped running at around 5pm. Since we didn't leave the beach until 7pm, we were in a bit of a pickle. Fortunately for us, a large cattle truck had stopped by the beach to get some provisions and the driver was willing to take us back to Diriamba. We waited the half hour or so it took the driver and the workers who were with him to finish their refreshments and then we all piled into the back. The workers sat atop the truck but we chose to sit inside the truck bed (I think that's what it's called). At one end was a hammock which one of the workers slept in while we drove. Since the truck bed was comprised of wooden slats, we were able to see the stars above us while we rode. Perhaps not the safest method of transportation, but it was a beautiful clear night.

A picture of us taking a very different type of public transportation.

*Tip: When you fly to Managua by way of San Salvador, you will not need to go through any additional customs/immigration/security. However, when you fly back to the US by way of San Salvador, you will. So make sure you're not carrying on any big liquids (like, for example, a big bottle of flor de caña) with you when you're flying back.

** The president's wife, Rosario Murillo, is a fascinating woman. Among other things, some Nicaraguans believe she is a witch.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Lima: Where Everything Went Wrong and Then Right: Part III

We arrived in Aguas Calientes, a small jungle village at the base of Macchu Pichu, in the evening and were met by the French owner of our B&B when we arrived at the train station.

Our host asked us how we were planning to get to Macchu Pichu and we told him that we had bus tickets to the top of the mountain. He suggested that we walk up the mountain since it's beautiful and only takes an hour and a half (two hours if you're very slow, he said). Plus, to take the bus to the top you have to wait in line at the bus station for 3 hours. For our tour at 8am the next morning, we would have to get to the bus stop by 5am. We told our tour guide that we had decided to walk rather than take the bus and he told us to meet them at the entrance at 8am. He suggested we leave by 6am to get there on time. Pfsh, we thought, we're young and fit. We'll leave at 6:30. The next morning, we woke up, had breakfast, and left around 6:30. The B&B packed us a lunch to eat at Macchu Pichu and we headed out. The walk started off fairly easy and we quickly obtained two friends.

J told me not to name them so I immediately dubbed them Marlin and Pookie.

We followed them (and the signs) up the mountain, which quickly became very steep.

About a half hour into our hike/climb, we realized that it was not going to be easy. As we peeled off layers of sweaters and jackets, we noticed that we hadn't seen any other tourists on the path. We had certainly heard many people that morning and we'd seen a Peruvian family stroll up the path easily, but other than that we were alone.

The view was stunning. We watched as the fog rolled off of the peaks.

At 7:30 we realized that we needed to start going a lot faster. We could see that we were not very close to the top. Breathless and shaking, we finally came to the top of the mountain and saw dozens of tour buses and hundreds of people milling around the entrance. As soon as we got to the entrance, I heard someone yelling my name. Our tour guide was yelling that we were late. It was 7:45. He yelled my name again. "Come on, you're late. We are starting soon." We quickly got in line and made our way to the tour. The tour began with a climb to the very top of Macchu Pichu.

After an exhilarating and exhausting day, we headed back to Cusco. We spent our last day in Cusco wandering around and eating Peruvian food.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lima: Where Everything Went Wrong and Then Right: Part II

On August 11th, we headed to Cusco. Our plan was to head to the Ministry of Culture as soon as possible to see if they had any tickets left. Fortunately I had (or thought that I had) arranged for an airport transfer with our hotel. Unfortunately, no one came to pick us up and we made our way to the hotel on our own.

Cusco is a wonderful city filled with stunning cobblestone streets and surrounded by mountains on all sides. It is also located at around 11,000 feet above sea level. Because of the altitude, we struggled to walk without needing to stop to gasp for air. We were also a little bit achey and nauseous. However, we were determined to find tickets to Machu Picchu, so we walked determinedly around the streets of Cusco popping our heads into each of the myriad travel agencies as we walked by and asking about tickets (and then stopping to gasp for air). At first, we had no luck. "You need to buy them in Aguas Calientes," they all told us. Finally, we came across a small luggage store that had a few signs saying that they also organized tours. It was a tiny little place with two women inside chatting in Spanish, one holding a baby. "What about this place?", I asked J. He said "I don't know. It doesn't look very professional." We stood outside the door debating for about five minutes in the 30 degree Cusco evening. Finally, one of the two women inside peeked her head outside and said "Yes?" and we said, "umm tickets to Machu Picchu?" and she said "Yes! Come in, sit down" and she ushered away the other woman, taking the baby from her and setting it in a baby seat (I think that's what they're called).

The woman told us she could get us tickets to Machu Picchu and hire a tour guide for us. Also, she organized bus tickets to and from the train station which was located about 2 hours outside of Cusco. She offered a number of other tours that we probably would have done if we'd had more time. It all seemed a little too good to be true. Then she asked us to pay in cash in US dollars. We thought there was probably a 50% chance it was a scam but also that it was our best chance of getting to see Machu Picchu.  The total price for everything was fairly low so we figured it was worth the risk. We paid her and she told us that she would bring us all of the tickets the next day at 1pm and then take us to the bus station where we could catch the bus to the train station.

The next day, we waited outside our hotel at 1pm as requested. A small car stopped in the middle of a busy street and the woman appeared, holding a baby in one hand and an envelope in another. She came running across the street to meet us. "I have everything for you. Please review and then we will go to the bus station." I opened the envelope and two tickets to Machu Picchu for August 25th were inside along with our bus tickets. I pointed out the wrong date to her and she said not to worry and that they would definitely let us in on August 13th. Then she called her husband who had driven around the block a few times while we reviewed the documents. He picked us up and the four of us squeezed into the back of his car while their older son sat in the front passenger seat.

While we were driving along, ostensibly to the bus station, the woman continued to yell at her husband a few times in Spanish, probably something about how he needed to hurry because our train left in 3 hours. Instead of taking us to a bus station, however, they drove us to a parking lot. At this point I thought it was about a 90% chance we were getting scammed and a 50% chance we were also getting mugged and/or kidnapped. The woman got out of the car and talked to a man standing in the parking lot. She gave him some cash and then told us to get out of her husband's car and into this other man's car. We did as we were told.

About an hour and a later, after driving through the slums of Cusco, numerous rural villages and winding mountain streets, we arrived at Ollantaytambo train station. "Your train is there," he pointed out. We got out of the car and he drove away. "How are we getting back?" J asked. It was a question for another day.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Lima: Where Everything Went Wrong and Then Right: Part I

I know I haven't written about my last few trips but I very much would like to share my wacky and wonderful trip to Peru. Things went wrong pretty much every step of the trip but somehow it all worked out in the end.

We flew to Lima by way of Mexico City and after about 20 hours of traveling arrived in Lima at 7am. I didn't sleep along the way and was looking forward to taking a nap. We had booked a short-term apartment rental and arrived at the apartment in good time since there wasn't much traffic that early on a Sunday morning. We walked into the reception area and I handed the reservation information to the man behind the front desk. He looked at me puzzled and asked me some questions in Spanish. Since it had been a while since I had taken Spanish and hadn't slept in around 30 hours, I looked back at him puzzled. His friend pulled out a translator app on his phone and a number of strangely translated questions later ("your contract is here?", "you would like to view the apartment?"), we were not much closer to an understanding. Then he said, "Guillermo" and handed me his phone. Guillermo was the owner of the apartment and a number of other apartments in the building and explained that the apartment wasn't ready yet. Oh and he also noted that I had booked it for August 8th through the 11th and wasn't today August 7th? Whoops!* He was able to extend our reservation for August 7th and then very nicely drove us to a Starbucks and showed us around a little bit. OK, just a little hiccup and no big deal. Everything worked out in the end. Here are some pictures of Barranco District, Lima where our apartment was located.

Barranco is a lovely little neighborhood on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Though it was overcast our entire time in Lima, the temperature was moderate (a nice change from the heat and humidity of Chicago) and we wandered around for hours each day. There was fascinating architecture all over the place and plenty of cafes and restaurants in which to stuff our faces.

While we were waiting for Guillermo to get the apartment ready, we decided to go over our other reservations to make sure that everything else was in order. Because getting to Machu Picchu is quite complicated and requires a carefully orchestrated set of trains, planes, buses and hikes, we had attempted to plan everything in advance. It was also the busy season and tickets to Machu Picchu sold out months in advance. The Ministry of Culture in Peru only permits 2,500 visitors to the site per day in order to reduce the amount of wear and tear on the ruins. Fortunately, I had (or at least thought that I had) booked our tickets in advance. As we went through the various reservations and confirmations, I remembered that I had reserved tickets to Machu Picchu but had not yet paid for them because the website was being buggy. According to the Ministry of Culture website, you could pay for reserved tickets in person in Cusco or Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu. Phew, no worries, I thought.

Then I noticed on the Ministry of Culture website that you only had 24 hours to pay for reserved tickets after which they were cancelled. Uh-oh. We decided to check to see if we could obtain new tickets in case the previously reserved ones had been cancelled, but there were no tickets available the day we were going to be there...or within one week of that date. Perhaps a travel agent could hook us up? We found a few travel agencies in Peru and reached out to a few of them. No tickets available. "Maybe check in Cusco," they said. I reached out to our hotel in Cusco who had a travel agency. No tickets in Cusco, they said, "maybe check Aguas Calientes" (the town that was the closest to Machu Picchu).

Well, we had three days left in Lima and didn't want to spoil our time there worrying. We napped, wandered, and ate our way through the city. Lima is a super foodie town. In addition, everyone was super friendly and patient and they indulged my efforts to converse in Spanish when possible. We visited local ruins at Huaca Pucllana, the site of an ancient pyramid built by the pre-Incan Lima people and later taken over by the Wari people (also a site of human sacrifices).

We also visited the wonderful Larco Museum which contained a ton of beautiful and fascinating artifacts as well as an entire wing devoted to erotic art.

Lima was delicious. Here are some pictures of the things we stuffed in our faces.

Pisco Sours.

Peruvian fish and chips (yucca).

Delightful "monster" sandwiches. That face is "why are you taking a picture of me eating a sandwich" and not "this sandwich tastes funny".

Monday, October 15, 2012


It's been a while since I posted about travel and over a year since I left for South Africa. I do miss it. But while I used to believe that I loved traveling, I now realize that I miss something different. It isn't just going abroad that I enjoy, but the permanence of living abroad. Traveling can be eye-opening and wonderful, but it can easily become a tireless trek from attraction to attraction. There's nothing wrong with that, of course -  many of my trips abroad have been just that, but after a while it can be stressful and exhausting. And often at the end, I don't feel like I ever really knew the place. I think what I most enjoy about going abroad is immersing myself in something different. When living abroad, every mundane task becomes an adventure.

My first attempt at buying a trash bag in Seoul. Instead of buying a ten liter bag, I bought a one hundred liter bag.
Take opening a bank account. I opened an account in Bordeaux when I studied abroad and in Seoul when I taught there. They produced two very different experiences that I believe taught me more about those countries than visits to a vineyard or noraebang. In France, as with just about everything there, it was a bureaucratic hassle. Armed with an EU citizenship, a French residence, registration as a student at a local university, and decent French language skills, it still took over a week and mounds of paperwork just to set up an appointment to meet with the bank manager. When I finally had my appointment, she asked me a number of questions, had me sign a lot of contracts I didn't understand, and finally granted me an account. From start to finish, it took two weeks. In Seoul, on the other hand, it was swift and efficient. I showed up just before closing, asked if they had anyone who spoke English (they did), handed over my passport, and within a matter of minutes had a fully functioning bank account.
My kitchen in Bordeaux. It wasn't long before I learned the words for "mouse droppings" - "crotte de souris."
Closing my bank accounts produced just as different, and just as telling, experiences. In Bordeaux, the bank teller, who had come to know me well from my visits to the ATM, was shocked when I told him I wanted to close my account. "Why not leave it open for when you come back?" he said. "I don't know when I'll be back," I answered. His face fell. "But you just moved here." I told him that I'd been studying abroad and had to return to my college back home. He shook my hand, wished me well in life, and encouraged me to return. It was an oddly sentimental ending to what I'd considered only a business relationship. In Seoul, closing the account was as easy as opening it. No one knew me or cared that I was leaving after almost a year in the country. Fifteen minutes and a few quick entries into a system and my account was dissolved as if it had never existed.

In Korea, prescriptions come in daily portions, so that you don't have to worry about what to take when. Unfortunately, it also means that if one of the drugs upsets your stomach you have no way of knowing which one to stop taking.
When I was in France, this experience and others taught me that the French eschew shallow relationships. Sometimes appearing unfriendly, they rarely chat with the person next to them in line or welcome the new foreign student. But once a relationship is established, it runs deep. In Seoul, on the other hand, people are warm and welcoming to visitors and it is easy to strike up a conversation with someone at the park or on the street. But at the end of the day, Seoul is a mega-city in which millions of people engage in millions of transactions every day. A foreigner closing a bank account does not elicit much interest.

Scotsmen really do wear kilts!
What I like about living abroad is the reduced pressure to rush around taking pictures of iconic attractions in a span of a few days or weeks. I like that living abroad creates unexpected hiccups and surprise friends. To that end, I think I'd rather live in a few places than visit many.