Okay, so after almost a week, I'm finally finding some time to write my first real blog post. It's been basically impossible to find time this week, since I'm busy all day, and my house doesn't have internet, so I'm going to try to catch everyone up on everything. Let's start with the cast of characters.
My Host Family: Berta and José Orlando, and their three children José (23), Noél (20), and Rosanna (18). They're incredibly sweet. Berta is warm and welcoming, José Orlando is engaging and interested, and José works all day. I've gotten along very well with the younger kids, Noél and Rosanna, first bonding over the fact that they're both starting to learn guitar. They asked me to play a couple of songs for them, which I very self-consciously did. It turned out Noél was secretly recording me on his cell phone, which was kind of funny. It's nice to have a thing I can teach someone, given how much time I'm spending learning while I'm here. I'm teaching Noél the Book of Love (by the Magnetic Fields) to sing to his girlfriend. And that way, he'll also have it ready for his next girlfriend next week. Noél is also learning English. His favorite word is "motherfucker." Rosanna is a sweetheart, and a total nudge. She really enjoys giving me a hard time, and told me as much. A few days ago, after I'd eaten a particularly large meal (we'll come to that in a bit) she asked me how many months pregnant I was. She certainly seems to get my sense of humor, though, so it's nice. I really enjoy living with them, and can only hope that my future residency situations are this good. I have my own room, and Berta cooks up to three meals a day (though I usually just have breakfast and sometimes dinner at the house, and lunch in the city). They also have an adorable dog named Lucky (see pictures) who likes to jump on your lap.
The Dutch folks: Rene and Mirona are also staying at Berta and José Orlando's house. They've been here a few weeks doing volunteer work and learning Spanish. I've gone out with them a bit the last couple of nights, and they've been a lot of fun. They speak English very well (qué suerte), so that makes my life a little easier. I know that it's better for my language skills to spend as much time speaking Spanish as I can, but after doing it all day, it can get a little exhausting, just because of the amount of extra thought required to say a basic phrase.
My teacher: Marlon, is a super nice Nica. He's got a great sense of humor, and is an extremely patient teacher. He's very good at letting me take my time to work out how to say something, and is helpful when it comes to correcting my mistakes. He's from Jinotepe, a town not too far from here, and he tells me about their interesting varieties of fruits. He also runs a lot of the activities for the school, so he's often around when I'm visiting other parts of the city, which is very helpful. He's got a great sense of curiosity, so we talk about all kinds of things, ranging from the underlying causes of the U.S. economic collapse to the scientific explanations of dreaming (thank you Radiolab). Yes, I do manage to express a lot of the complex thoughts involved in these things, but it usually takes me a while to form what I'm trying to say.
Other students: I've gotten along quite well with some of the other students at the school. The classes are individual, so I mostly interact with them during the breaks and the activities. I've spent a decent amount of time at the activities with Kenny and Keren, a sweet couple who are super Californian. Keren is an excellent Spanish speaker, and Kenny knows a lot about hammocks and random other things, something I can appreciate as an aficionado of miscellanea. I've also spent some time hanging out with two students named Brendan and Rosalind, a couple about my age. He's from Oregon and she's from Nevada. They're a lot of fun. Last night over drinks I learned that they studied a lot of crazy math in school, which of course makes me like them even more. We're going (along with Marlon, Rene, Mirona, and maybe Kenny--quite the ragtag crew) to the baseball game tonight. It's the first game of the best-of-7 championship series, Granada against Léon, so that should be pretty awesome (¡Vayan Tiburones!).
My school is called Nicaragua Mía, and the teachers are really great. They're clearly very well-practiced, and are excellent at picking up on the areas where you need help. I have class from 8-12 in the morning, and then optional activities in the afternoon. I've posted photos (links below) of everything so far, and you can see some of the activities. We went to Las Isletas (a series of small islands in Lago Nicaragua that were formed by an exploding volcano several hundred years ago), Masaya (a nearby town with a large market of local artisanal crafts), and had a cooking class. The large meal I mentioned earlier was at the cooking class, where we made our own empanadas. I used the inside part of my plate as a guide, and it turned out that I happened to have the large plate. So I made (and ultimately ate) an unreasonably large empanada. An empanada is basically plantains smashed into a pulp, and then used as a kind of dough, wrapped around some cheese. Then it's pan-fried. So if you see the pictures, keep in mind that the thing I'm eating is fried plantain and cheese. You have permission to feel a little ill. I still do.
The comida typica (local food) is generally not super diverse. Gallo pinto (mixed fried rice and beans) is the staple, although quesillos (sort of like a rolled quesadilla) are also all over the place, and are pretty tasty. Breakfast is almost always eggs with some kind of vegetable and bread, which works great for me. Chicharrones (pork rinds) are something of a delicacy here, which is unfortunate, to say the least. I've managed to have them only once. Interestingly, hot dogs and burgers are very common. As you can see from the Granada pictures, there are hot dog and coffee carts all over the Parque Central, which is the main square here. I made myself try a local hot dog, out of curiosity, and it honestly could've been from Coney Island. It was quite flavorful. I actually am writing this from a balcony restaurant overlooking the Parque, where I just ate "the best hamburguesa in Granada." It goes against just about everything I stand for to go to a different country and eat a hamburger, but I had to see what their take on it was. This particular one was really good, mostly because it had a perfectly fried egg on top. So really, how can you go wrong?
The local beers are Toña and Victoria, the latter of which is definitely superior. Victoria is a pilsner, and I believe Toña is a lager (I have a Victoria in front of me right now, so I'm not really sure). I've had some other really interesting local beverages, Tiste (a drink made of toasted corn and cacao) and Chicha (a crazy pink ginger drink). You can get chichi at the local market, but it's sold in a plastic bag and is apparently not the most hygienic thing in the world, so I skipped it there and had it at a restaurant instead.
Granada is a beautiful city in a lot of ways, though smaller than I expected. You run out of road pretty fast if you go North or South, and the lake is downhill to the East. There's an incredibly impoverished shanty town to the South. I was up there yesterday with Rene and Mirona, who volunteer there. We were supposed to play baseball with the kids, but then it turned out they'd already played before I got there. So hopefully, I'll get to do that on Tuesday instead.
Central Granada is downright full of gringos. Somewhat surprisingly though, the industry that feeds off of the tourists is not that aggressive here. The Parque Central is definitely full of people selling random tourist crap, as is La Calzada (which is the street with all the gringo restaurants). But if you say "no, gracias," they leave you alone. It's significantly less in your face than most other places I've been where tourism is a major industry. There's also a decent amount of poverty, but again, it's not as bad as I've seen it in other places. The average standard of living is much lower than the states, obviously, but in the center of the city, the poverty is less apparent. In fairness, that's mostly because the homeless have moved down the road to the shanty towns, but even there they have televisions and refrigerators (with pirated electricity). I don't mean to downplay the severity or significance of the poverty, it just looks a bit different here than anywhere else I've been.
One of the major downside to Granada (aside from the fact that there is a *lot* of litter) is that can get very loud. There are cars that are paid to drive around blasting advertisements from loudspeakers, and that can get tiresome at times. The cars are also older, obviously, so they get quite noisy. And, based on the frequency of car horn usage, I can only assume they're being used to communicate very complex thoughts in Morse Code.
As I said, gringos are everywhere, but particularly in places like Kelly's Bar, O'Shea's pub, and Kathy's Waffle House. "Et in arcadia ego," I guess. The only one of these I've been to was Kelly's Bar, to which I went on Wednesday night with Rene and Mirona to hear some live music. The local band really loves Credence, it seems. They kicked off the show with "Have You Ever Seen Rain?" They also played pretty sweet covers of "Creep," by Radiohead (not TLC), and "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," in the style of Guns ‘N' Roses.
My Spanish is coming along quite well, to the point that yesterday I rented a bike in town, and the salesman asked where I learned Spanish, and told me it was excellent. The key moment was when he told me that the amount I gave him included the deposit, and that I'd get back $75 out of my $80 when I returned the bike. He asked if I'd understood, and when I said yes he asked me to repeat it back to him to make sure, and I did (successfully), which got me points. This is much better than the issue I've run into once or twice where someone gives you instructions, you say "sí," they walk away, and a minute later you realize that while you know roughly what they're talking about, the specifics could be one of at least two very different things. One example is the time Berta, my host mother, told me I didn't need to lock the deadbolt when I left her house, because the door locks automatically. Only when I was walking away did I realize I wasn't sure if she had meant that, or that I should always lock the deadbolt in addition to the automatic lock. It turned out to be the former, so thank goodness that worked out okay.
The bike ride, it's worth noting, was great. The other Americans I know here seemed to think I was nuts, but even the busy areas in town are not nearly as bad as riding a bike in New York or Boston, so I was fine. At any rate, I mostly strayed from the most traffic-heavy parts of town (I went through once to swing by the house). Instead I headed down to the lake. I took a lot of pictures that show off just how incredible it looks down there. The lake is pretty enormous, and there are mountains and volcanoes on pretty much all of its shores, so the vista is just remarkable. It is incredibly polluted though, which is a shame. There were also more flies there than I've ever seen in my life. Riding along the water, you collide with so many bugs that it literally feels like rain. A number of them died on my shirt as though I were a windshield. Yeah, gross. Generally, the insects here aren't too bad. I've gotten a little bitten, but not much. Bug spray goes a really long way, it seems. There aren't any stinging insects in Granada, as far as I can tell, so that's good too. I guess I should also mention that it's ranged between 70 and 85 degrees every day, without a drop of rain. So, that's nice. The locals get very cold when it gets down to the high 60s and low 70s at night. A lot of them put on sweaters. I've gotten a little burned on the back of my neck, but otherwise no real burning or even tanning. I expect that will change once I get to Costa Rica.
I've gotten to the point of feeling pretty comfortable here. The first few nights I refused to leave the house after 6pm. The truth is though, that the city is really very safe. I now realize that my family lives in the rough equivalent, neighborhood-wise, of park slope, so the few robbers that supposedly do exist here just aren't in that area. They hang out closer to the touristy areas, I assume. The people here are wonderful. I've found myself in random conversations with dozens of natives who are just very friendly and welcoming. I think they're very happy that their city is a place other people want to visit. It sounds like the war was a really rough time for the residents. Marlon was telling me yesterday about the first time he tried chocolate. He was 10 years old, shortly after the war ended, and he came across it for the first time. He tasted it and thought it was so incredible that he only took one or two bites, and hid the rest in his bedroom. He was afraid that it would disappear from the country, and never come back, so he wanted to reserve the small amount he had. But after a while he came to realize that chocolate was here to stay, so he stopped hoarding it.
Now that I feel more comfortable here, I'm very excited for the coming week. As I said, tonight I'm going to the Tiburones (Sharks) game at the baseball stadium. I'm going to try to go to Ometepe—an island in the middle of the lake consisting of two volcanoes connected by an isthmus—for the next few days. Concepción, the bigger volcano, is visible in the distant background of one of my pictures of the lake. It's got a caption that says so, if you want to see it without searching too much. Next week I'm planning to visit Mombacho and Masaya volcanoes, both pretty close to Granada. You can see the Masaya volcano from my pictures of the trip to the Masaya market, and Mombacho in the pictures of Las Isletas. I'm also going to try to get to Laguna de Apoyo, which is a spectacular nature preserve. In an ideal world, I'll make it up to Cerro Negro, a very young volcano covered in black sand, from the top of which you can ride a toboggan to the bottom.
I think that's all I have for the moment. I figured I'd give a broad overview here, and if you want specifics on the activities you can check out the pictures, most of which have captions. I'll try to check out comments. As I mentioned in the last post, I don't get to the internet much here, and when I do it's not usually for very long. I think that'll change in future destinations, but it's just the way things are for the moment. I recently discovered a hostel near my house with free wi-fi though, so maybe that will change some. I'm off to reserve my ferry ride to Ometepe, and try some raspado (shaved ice).
*Note: as of this posting, I am in the process of uploading these pictures. I have to be somewhere in about 30 min, so they might not all make it online before I leave. The Granada album will almost certainly be updated again, though the other two will not.