Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What the surf’s up with Nicaragua?!?

Firstly, let me state that surfing is difficult. No, not the kind of difficult you experience when learning how to juggle for the first time, this it turns out is just a matter of time and likely does not involve putting your body in any kind of real physical danger. It’s not even the kind of difficult where you try to complete a full length triathlon, because as this also turns out, you just have to get fit enough.

Late afternoons at Playa Maderas where we spent a memorable four days surfing from daybreak to sundown

Surfing is difficult in the kind of way that it might be to stand on one leg while juggling, but only while riding an escalator going downward and only between the hours of two and three in the afternoon, but only when your cousin Bob thrice removed is also riding the same escalator and only if the song “Hit Me Baby One More Time” happens to be playing on the loudspeaker radio. And even then, you will probably mess it up.

The general populace is made up of one surfboard to one person, surf jams are a common event here at Playa Maderas, one of the most popular idyllic surf beaches near San Juan del Sur, the popular seaside tourist town in Southern Nicaragua

The first kids on the block, this hostel was the first business on Playa Maderas, these days profits run low as more and more competition moves in to capitalize on what is becoming a highly visited tourist beach - still it is wonderful and retains a certain kind of charm probably due to being physically limited as a pretty small beach

But seriously, in order to surf you have to have the right fitness and balance skill combined with a good knowledge of the ocean and waves gathered over time and experience, employ it all at the right time, in the right spot and on the right wave…and then when it gets there, you have around three seconds to stand up and ride it.

This photograph was taken at Playa Santana near Juiqiliste and Limon where we spent a number of weeks, the debris here is the next morning result of the first big rain for the year - sadly much of the land on the coast is proximally backed by farm land where deforestation, cows and heavy fertilizer use are commonplace, and towns where modern rubbish is irresponsibly discarded all over

Likewise the towns do not have good waste water treatment infrastructure - this photograph demonstrates how untreated washing water and cleaning chemicals affect the surf beach at Playa Santana (only two locals and three foreigners dared enter the chocolate-brown water this day, all of whom got some eye or ear infections, normally you will see hundreds of people in the water)

A very calm image from our visit to Apoyo Laguna near Granada, not relevant but its a good break from the above!

That aside, I remember a famous wise saying about being brave and stupid, or stupid and brave, can’t remember which it was but this is pretty much what I did. I stupidly, or bravely, continued trying to surf convinced that the angels might at any moment take pity on me and send heavenly ability to carry out this, the most difficult of physical tasks.

At Playa Maderas we stayed at Buena Vista Surf Club, a wonderful accommodation in six unique and beautiful cabins - this is where we rested at the end of the day before our delicious dinners were served up by owners Marc and Marielle

The whole place is beautifully and lovingly crafted, embodying a sense of belonging and love for one's work - this image shows the stairs leading to the restaurant/bar area on the left, bathroom in the centre and the refreshing outdoor shower on the right

Looking toward the beach over the lavish terrace - each morning the surf report was delivered personally by the ocean itself

Now this is how you do a lounge area - Buena Vista Surf Club got this totally right and as a result we enjoyed the perfect space to mingle with other guests and staff over cool drinks

Colette's otherworldly perspective of our cabin at Buena Vista Surf Club - take note of how snuggly it fits between three large trees, the owners refused to cut them down and therefore designed around it

Despite spending somewhere in the order of twenty plus hours in the surf with a legitimate surfboard, in unbelievable opposition to the universal rules of statistical probability, I never once achieved a proper “surf”. I did achieve many, many, many a spectacular wipeout, sore and fatigued muscles, breathing in of sea water, praying both above and below tumultuous ocean swell, sun burns and skin rash to the nth degree, cuts and bruises, burning eyes and utter exhaustion.

"Kicking the shit" after a hard surf session, just another one of the perks of putting your body through the hard work, hard earned and all the better, this activity makes up about fifty percent of what surfing was all about for us

Ghost towels of overheated beach clingers gone splashing

But all was not for naught…ehmmm, yeah. When you are lucky enough to make it beyond the hell portal break that is the Pacific Man-eater (not commonly known as, artistic licence generously applied), found here along the entire Central American west coast, you get moments of pure tranquility out in the not-too-cold-not-too-warm ideal sea water, watching the birds fly and swoop, and the fish swim and jump. It is extremely quiet, a real rarity in Central America, and somehow you do count yourself as being awfully fortunate to be able to experience such a crazy adventurous but beautiful thing in your life.

The view out over the ocean as the day sets taken from the Buena Vista Surf Club restaurant /bar lounge

This night image exemplifies the finely selected colour tones employed at Buena Vista Surf Club, as well as the attention to detail applied to light, material and construction selections - all of these add up to creating a more comfortable hotel environment than we had enjoyed up until this point

Likewise I learnt many a trick of the trade, I should remain confident that should I ever find myself in a surfer bar in either Australia or California, I will undoubtedly be able to hold my own in any situation or discussion. If the terms; “right-point-break”, “close-out”, “A-frame”, “reef-break”, “duck-dive”, “big-set”, “offshore-wind” or “turtle-dive” mean anything to you, then you know what I am talking about, whoooaaa gnarrrllllyyy duuuudeeeee. I think that if surfing was a mental challenge I would be at least top ten in the world, because I get it all…in my head it all makes sense, I could teach you if you like…I just can’t do it myself, you know what I mean?

In San Juan del Sur we stayed at La Terraza Guest House, a wonderful converted private three level house come budget luxury stay which offered these comfortable home-like spaces, a small number of guests would share the terrace, living room and kitchen 

The view from our kitchen window over the Parque Central and San Juan del Sur's main cathedral

In hind sight, the positives are quite distinct and noteworthy. On the one hand surfing requires an incredible amount of physique, it is extremely tough body work, which means that after all that “trying” I think I am in petty good shape right now - the ladies love it! The other massive bonus has been having a good reason to go and stay for a long time in some of the nicest beach holiday locations in Nicaragua, and this did not go unnoticed as many a sun down was enjoyed watching the beach goers and marine animals play out the theatre of ocean-meets-land.

So, like whatever dude, check you later, Vinko out.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What to do in Granada (when you don’t want to be in Granada)

I bite my thumb at you, Granada!

Like a bad rash, Granada is back on our agenda. And, like the really nasty kind of rashes, it’s even better the second time around. The basic reason for our misery is that our passports (and all of Vinko’s already limited possessions except two pairs of clothes) were stolen over Easter Weekend on Ometepe Island. So we’ve been back in Granada to sort ourselves out. I’d rather have the rash. It is an unbelievably painful process, which I've jokingly blogged about in another post. In summary, I wish nothing but a perpetual attack of chiggers onto the thief.

But here we are, in Granada. Again. We figured we deserved a few days sulking and complaining in style so we checked in at Hospedaje Valeria, a Nicarguan/ Italian outfit which is a very good deal in an old colonial house with pretty courtyard and a spacious room with AC, cable TV and private bathroom (with hot water!) for about $35. And not to mention Valeria herself, who, with her larger than life personality and whirlwind manners swept us along into the high life of Granada – family birthdays, nights on the town and beer at home were all in order. She's a trip.

But these frivolities mostly concern our nightly hours. So what to do with all those glorious sunshine hours when we are not dealing with the bureaucratic beast of summoning our passports from many seas away? In other words: “What to do in Granada when you don’t want to be in Granada?” Here are some of my top picks of how we passed the time.

The main palapa, finished in January this year, where classes and shows are held.
There is a giant water storage tank under the foundation.

Diego and his delightful little grandson

We feel truly blessed to have come across the Escuela de Comedia y Mime (School of Comedy and Mime) in Granada. This project gives children of precarious family situations the opportunity to develop skills in entertainment and performance very similar to that of Cirque du Soleil. At the moment, 65 children come to the school every day after their normal school classes to learn, practice and share with their circus friends. Diego Gené, the director of the school, invited us with open arms when we went for a day visit to the school, also known as the Casa de Botellitas (House of Bottles), which has been built using plastic and glass bottles. 

One of the beautiful walls at the Escuela Comedia y Mime

101 things to do with plastic bottles that would otherwise end up in the rivers

I want this window. Or at least a close approximation of it.

It is an amazing space, not just because of the creativity and beauty of the building and garden, but also because of all the happy faces running around. The atmosphere is that of a giant, happy family and we toiled there all afternoon not wanting to go anywhere else. Since that afternoon, we’ve already returned once for a show featuring local musician Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy and performances by the senior members of the school – a spectacular evening that we’ll never forget. If you are in the area and looking for some inspiration I would highly recommend contacting the school and visiting for an afternoon.

The airplane, with instruction from teacher Rafa
who was in these guys' shoes ten years ago when the project began.
Rafa and other members of the teacher group now tour Europe and Central America regularly.
The start of a pyramid
The kids are so happy and cheerful, it's heart warming and infectious

The kids are split into smaller groups who rotate through
many different skill workshops each afternoon

We watched as Lester patiently taught a group of kids the art of juggling.
The boys in the back were running around on stilts trying to synchronize tricks.

The hope, love and new possibilities that the school gives these kids,
most of who are growing up in very poor and troubled households, is amazing.

Finally, Vinko finds someone to juggle with!

Isletas de Granada / Jicaro Island Eco Lodge
There are 365 tiny little islands scattered in Lake Nicaragua around Granada – the locals like to boast that there is one for every day of the year, but I wonder if there are really 365 or if was just rounded up/ down to suit some marketing scheme. I tried counting them on a map, but got bored. Either way, it is possible to take a little boat trip through some of the islands with any one of the lancheros who will find/ hassle/ chase you down on the street, and it’s a relaxing way to spend a morning or afternoon. You can even see Volcan Concepcíon on Ometepe Island looming in the background.

The whole Jicaro Island Eco Lodge is on one of the isletas of Granada.

We took a special little boat to go to Jicaro Island Eco Lodge, one of the lodges we had on our list and one we were very interested to go see. It really is a beautiful spot, with amazing service and orgasmic food smells wafting from the kitchen. Unfortunately, us poor buggers couldn’t afford to stay overnight, but we had two terrific staff members walk us all around the property to explain the various sustainability aspects of the lodge, including the water supply and processing, which we were very interested in, and their community development programs which stretched further that we imagined. Overall, we were impressed – this is a beautiful, top-noch hotel and would no doubt be a great treat for anyone making a stay.

The island even boasts a little freshwater cenote

The infinity salt water pool in the centre of the hotel

Maybe I should have photoshopped myself into this picture...

Apoyo Lagoon
About 30 minutes north of Granada is Laguna Apoyo, a crystal clear crater lake surrounded by densely forested hills. Even though we picked the only rainy day all week to go (damn you prepaid shuttle!), it was still a nice little escape and the extra moisture encouraged the birds to go haywire singing all day. Vinko and I took a kayak (the shuttle from Oasis Hostel in Granada to Apoyo drops you at Paradiso Hotel, where you can get kayaks and over-priced food) and paddled along the shore. The water was a lovely temperature and we heard howler monkeys in the hills. The shores are still mostly undeveloped and there is only one small village, so the only sound was the paddles dipping in the water and the birds and monkeys. This was one of the most relaxing days we had just kayaking, reading, lying in hammocks and enjoying the peace and silence.

This is the best I could do in terms of photos on this rainy day.
Still, it looks pretty nice despite no sunshine!

We meant to go to the market in Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos (white wall villages) around Granada to go climb the mirador lookout tower in Catarina… but we couldn’t quite manage to get enough enthusiasm together today to get on a bus for another day trip. So we’ll just stroll around town (again), have some lunch and maybe a beer on the restaurant strip (again), laze around our room and waste time on the internet (again) and keep waiting for the day when freedom – in the form of a new passport – arrives. 

And when you get completely bored and run out of options,
you can always go for a haircut... and return with unexpected pink hair.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Ups and Downs of life on a Volcano

Ometepe Island lies lazily in Lake Nicaragua, its two volcanic cones poking out of the water like two boobs in a bath tub. (Really, who could have resisted?). Active Volcan Concepcíon with its perfectly conical volcano shape and sparse cover absolutely dominates the northern island, separated only by a thin flat strip of land from the southern island where the dormant Volcan Maderras houses a cloud-forest and crater lagoon. The ferry from Granada docked just outside of the small town of Altagracia on the north island. We took one look at the "Evacuation ---->" sign and proceeded as fast as the rickety 1950's bus could go in the other direction over the 4x4 track known as the main road circling the two islands. Who knows – one day they might actually finish the monumental task of hand-laying all the pavers on the road. But until then, in the event of an actual evacuation I would recommend walking rather than taking the bus - a speedy getaway would be much more likely on foot!

This, my friends, is stage one of chocolate

Stage two of chocolate

We briefly worked up enough energy to climb Volcan Maderras and were rewarded with sightings of parrots, white-faced monkeys and howler monkeys. The cloud forest at the top of the mountain was beautiful and so much cooler than the scorching heat below. But the eight hour hike is no joke and we suffered a substantial amount in the following days.

The crater lake at the top of Volcan Maderras
Ometepe's industry is exclusively agriculture (plantains, cows hanging out on the road and a random scatter of small family farms) and tourism, making it a hotspot for agri-tourism. I'd estimate that half of the island's visitors are WOOFers: backpacker/ volunteer types coming to work and stay on the selection of organic/ permaculture farms run by foreigners who moved here for the off-grid lifestyle (I’m not even sure if there is a grid of any sorts to connect to?). Subsequently, there's also a decent selection of eco-lodges for those who are not keen to get their hands dirty. Although we weren't planning on visiting an eco-lodge here, fate brought us to Totoco Eco-Lodge on the slope of Volcan Maderras above the little town of Balgüe.

Another perfect sunset from our bunk bed at Totoco

It’s hard to describe the serenity that exists in the sun and the silence at Totoco, which sits perched on a hill directly opposite the stately Volcan Concepcíon and affording an infinite view of Lago Nicaragua. Aside from being in such a lovely spot, the triple focus of Totoco was as close to a working example of what we might hope to achieve with our own venture. The construction and operations at the lodge all genuinely focused on sustainability and we were amazed at all the small details and big ideas that have been incorporated into it. We were very happy that we had a chance to talk to all the owner-managers and learn about their experience, and we spent every afternoon in the infinity pool taking in the magnificent view and giddily refining our own plans and ideas. We were also inspired by the lodge’s commitment to the community through the Totoco Foundation, which supports education, health and literacy projects and also issues micro-loans to encourage small-business growth in the otherwise very poor community. The third aspect to the operation is the permaculture farm where we eventually got our hands dirty and realized just how hard it is to get some food out of the earth.

We got to share in the birthday celebrations of Justine and friends from California.

Part of the high-life at Totoco before we moved down to the farm to get our hands dirty
During the few days we spent on the farm-side of things we took to the challenge of being the best little worker bees we could. We watered, made and applied natural pesticide, transplanted plants, dug up whole garden beds, sifted soil for hours and Vinko had the fun job of collecting horse manure in the field to enhance my perfectly sifted soil. After much hype about “beating the crap out of the crap”, I did not eventually get to pulverize the dry manure, but Kelly – one of the loveliest people we’ve ever met, a great friend and fellow garden-worker – demonstrated the two-hand-beating technique in case I ever want to give it a go.

The kitchen and hang-out spot down on the farm

I didn't have the heart to take a picture of Kelly pounding poo.
Instead, here she is demonstrating the technique of garlic chopping.

The pile of sifted dirt is much bigger in real life, I promise!
We also got a chance to hang out a bit in the village, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that the majority of the kids who came out to throw a disc with Vinko, Kelly and I were actually really good! If we were to stay on Ometepe we would certainly have started Nicaragua’s best ultimate disc club! We also spent an afternoon visiting the family of Thobias – the gentleman who walks a cooler of ice the 2km up the hill every day to supply the lodge and volunteers – and he very generously picked us baskets of mangoes from his tree, sent his son to escort us for a swim in the lake and showed up at the farm the following day with seven lake fish for us, refusing payment because the casual exchange of how-do-you-do’s the previous two days meant that “we were friends”. This display of generosity from a man who lives in a stick and mud house with much less than we can ever imagine amazed us. Despite not having had the best experience in Nicaragua so far and experiencing a constant swing between good days and bad days here, it’s little gems like these that restore our faith and convince us that the ups and downs are all part of the journey.

On our last night on the farm, we had a pizza night with about 12 people joining in the fun.
I want one of these ovens! 

Another diligent farm worker