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Diakachimba!!

The days start hot as soon as the sun rises along with the humidity here in Leon, Nicaragua. The air is slightly oppressive, filled with sun-scorched temperatures and steamy humidity. And still this isn’t the truly “hot” season yet.

The crumbly patchwork streets – a mix of some asphalt, some concrete, some cobblestone – are quiet this early other than the occasional woman who starts work early or the numerous slightly emaciated dogs that wander the neighbourhoods hoping to come upon a scrap of food… anything left behind by a late night drinker or a bag of garbage left untended.

On the surface and in many ways, Nicaragua is hard to distinguish from other Latin American countries.

There are ramshackle houses and vendor stalls made from tin and scrap pieces of salvaged wood… the kids play games in the streets … young Moms wander the narrow calles, sweet brown babies held snugly to their chests in light cotton wraps … bicycles loaded with entire families glide over the bumpy streets … Spanish voices float loudly in the air filled with diesel fumes …  scents of stale urine mixed with caffeine add to the melange.

But not everything is the same. There is something different here in Nicaragua…

The kids and moms and dads of Nicaragua just don’t understand the nature of the hard sell that any other Caribbean nation has known for years. Marketing your goods in a third-world country doesn’t just happen.

Nicaraguan sellers quixotically think that “No” means “NO”.

Most other Caribbean, Latin American, South American countries know this is patently false. You need to push and press and hold each rich tourist, it’s like a WWF fight, anything and everything goes. Take no prisoners, leave no tourist wallet unturned until you’ve captured the mighty US dollars from deep in the pocket.

Street vendors are just so polite in Nicaragua… and unlike Cuba, for example, no government officer or policeman is enforcing their polite distance. They just don’t know any better.

Only the dogs get it here in this Central American locale… maybe they have an international code by which they know the skill set needed.

The dogs are far better beggars than the children.

They have the hangdog look down pat as they stare at you from a few feet away in a head-bowed manner.

Then painfully slowly, one slow-motion paw in front of the other they approach and rest their scratched nose or scrawny-furred jaw on the edge of your leg and rest silent, unmoving. The eyes are sad, almost haunted, irresistible.

Once fed a small scrap or ignored for too long they turn and wander, ever so slowly back to their sleeping tribe on the edge of the pavement… laying in a circle nearby the black dog, and the tan dog, and the white dog with the black patch circling his eye.

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Nicaragua is still in the early stages of its tourism industry and will take some time to develop along the lines of its other Caribbean neighbours. It’s not a bad thing… fewer people speak English in the hotels and street stalls – it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to practice Spanish.

So often when we travel, hauling out our rudimentary language skills, English is spoken to us in return, making it easy for us, but not so good for making the mind work hard to find the right words.

But in Nicaragua, we can work our skill set – or lack of one perhaps – as few people in this just-developing nation have studied English.

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Nicaraugan street dinner in Leon with our group of Canadians, American, Belgian, Brit, Aussie, and Costa Rican

You might want to call it “Nici” time.

Eating in a restaurant in Nicaragua is a test of the typical Westerner’s patience. Prepare for long waits between each step of the eating process.

Menu arrives…. wait …
Drink orders taken… wait …
Drinks arrive… if you drink wine, don’t expect glasses or an open bottle for some time yet , yup… wait…
Food order taken… now the need for patience really begins… after 15 or 20 minutes expect the waiter to return to tell you that the lamb or soup you ordered is not available today (there are plausible rumours in our group that lamb has never been seen in Nicaragua despite appearing on every menu).
Wait for a menu to be brought again in order to make your next choice of meal.
The drinks will have been long exhausted before any food arrives, and liquid refreshment will not be replenished unless a waiter is forcibly made to listen to the order.
Once the usually delicious meal has been brought to the table and thoroughly enjoyed… it’s time to settle in and wait for la cuenta (the bill) to come…

In Nicaragua, a quick lunch or dinner is an oxymoron just waiting to be tested.

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It’s a rich, cacophonous mix of sound at 6 am in this tiny village of Los Angeles on Ometepe Island, in the middle of huge Lake Nicarauga.We’re doing a 2 night Homestay with a local farming family. Our house Mom is a 60’ish divorced lady called Midea who needs the small income that we tourists provide.

As the morning arises, it feels like I’m in a blender swirling with loud whistles and whooshes of wind high in the trees- the palms, the eucalyptus, the ceibas.

The wind circles lower into the smaller trees and bushes- the sour oranges, the mangos, the bougainvilleas and hibiscus – and then begins to rustle the rusty tin roofs of houses and sheds creating shudders and bangs, then wooden doors swing on hinges, roosters crow from all directions, blue and yellow birds sing and squawk, and in the far distance a speaker pumps out a bass beat of mi-doh-mi-doh-mi-doh music, a horse whinnies… and finally I can feel the strong welcoming rush of the wind penetrating the gaps of the roof and walls running over my white cotton sheet – it feels fresh and comforting as I nod off to its caress.

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Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

One of 7 still-active volcanoes in Nicaragua, Cerro Negro beckons with the unique chance to surf or slide down its long, gravelly-smooth black front surface … it’s a novel experience that comes along so rarely that it would be crazy to pass by, right?

And it’s safe too, the volcano hasn’t erupted since 1999, so what are the chances it will erupt today?

A narrow, twisting dirt road outside Leon leads to the base of the beautiful conical volcano. After signing in at the official volcano office – they need sufficient information from you to pass on to your national authorities should you perish – it’s just a short drive on to the base parking lot where you look up to the 728m. high peak of Cerro Negro.

It’s an impressive sight, especially when you peer up along the north spine and catch sight of the small ants that are other boarders climbing to the peak for their rapid descent down.

The dozen or so of us -Dutch, Aussies, Americans, Canadians – are given a small backpack to carry with coveralls and protective gear, and then a plywood ‘toboggan’ with a square patch of thick linoleum on the underside that acts as the slippery surface for sliding over volcanic ash.

We’ve all been given the option to stand ‘snowboard style’ for the run downhill, but Dennis our guide informs us that there is little control on the upright boards and it quickly becomes extremely dangerous as speed increases. Hmmmmm. Each of us chooses the ‘sit-down’ version happily.

All set with water bottles and slathered with sunscreen to protect against the penetrating sun, we head off in a long line like marchers heading off to the first base camp of Mount Everest.

The early going isn’t very steep, but the size of the black rocks and boulders is fairly large – at one point a young American fellow dislodges a boulder about twice the size of a basketball that tumbles down and just misses the climber below.

The footing is a bit tricky at times, but mostly all goes well as we move higher and higher and the vistas grow more lush and appealing.

At the halfway point about a half hour in, we stop for water and rest and capture the scenery and each other on cameras… all the big lenses and iPhones are pulled out and smiling hikers’ visages preserved for bragging rights later on.

The cross breezes are becoming quite strong at this elevation, so our guide instructs us to carry the board in a horizontal way so that we won’t catch a draft and be pulled off the side of the mountain.

The climb is now a steady incline but smooth and gravelly underfoot as we mount the spine of the hill… now we are the ants that can be seen from far below.

A slight scent of volcanic sulphur permeates the air and the winds are becoming substantial – then in just a few moments we come over a steep rise and the sight of other ‘boarders’ in their sliding coveralls greets us – we’ve made it, we’re at the peak.

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Jesse... a co-traveller from Calgary looks ready for the big slide...

The verdant valleys stretch out in all directions below us, but the sight we’re most interested in is the one straight ahead – the flat, black expanse that drops off like a Black Diamond snowy ski run below.

Before pulling on our sliding gear, guide Dennis scrapes the gravel surface where we stand as on the backside of the black sliding surface is the interior of the volcano. We can see small steam and gas clouds rising up from below in the crater. As he scrapes a few inches into the surface of the volcanic rim, steam appears and, holding my hand close by I feel a glow of heat emanating from the ground.

We take a few fun photos, then begin to strap on knee and elbow pads, and pull on the well-worn coveralls over our own clothes. Gloves and protective eye goggles are next.

As we dress, Dennis instructs us that the toboggan is narrow and that it’s easy to fall off. We’re to keep our legs well outside of the edges and use them to balance ourselves and also use our feet as brakes, particularly as our speed increases towards the bottom half of the run.

We’re given a reminder that this isn’t a race and that although boarders have been ‘clocked’ at 120kph, we’re not here to kill ourselves. I look around me – everyone in the group smiles and nods. There doesn’t appear to be any heroes in this group.

It’s time!

We all climb that last few metres to the top and survey the run below.

Dennis sets us into one of two start paths, then he runs down down down the hill so that we can barely see him in the far distance. His job now is to signal us when it’s safe for the next boarder to start – he can see the bottom of the run and will know if the last boarder made it to the end safely.

Two by two we slot into the start ‘troughs’ and once the arm signal is given by Dennis below, the first pair (a Dutchman and an American) push off. They begin hesitantly, the toboggans gripping the gravel a bit, but then momentum kicks in and their speed increases. A long dust cloud forms like a vapour trail behind each sledder.

Now it’s my turn…

Clumsily I trudge over to the start slot and toss the toboggan down into the hot, black sandy-gravel. It’s as if I’m a space astronaut… all moves are slow and clunky. I plunk my ass onto the back of the toboggan and wiggle back and forth until I’m centred properly.

The hand signal from below comes and I push off with gloved hands – my speed increases faster than I anticipated. Loud grating noises of the board scraping gravel grow in volume and a cloud of volcanic ‘smoke’ trails behind as I go faster and faster.

Soon I’m at the halfway point and I see Dennis the guide waving excitedly at me. No way am I letting go of the reins that hold me onto this speeding sled. My will to live is too great to stupidly let go and wave.

By this point, there’s a constant upwards spray of black dust and gravel forcing itself into my nose and mouth and I fear I’ll swallow a big mouthful of gravel that is attempting to choke the life out of me.

I can see the bottom of the mountain approaching, but just barely through the dust cloud… the sensation of bumping, bouncing, gravity pressure, and loud noise feels to me like what I see in movies of astronauts blasting off a launchpad.

Then, in only about a minute and a half, the run comes abruptly to an end and all is quiet except for the excited voices of those who came down ahead of me.

I stumble up and off the toboggan and shake a pound or two of dust and gravel off the coveralls… I feel exhilarated and can still feel the bump and buzz in my bones, the gritty dust between my teeth.

In two or three minutes time, my group of fellow travellers in Nicaragua – Costa Rican guide Esteban, and Canadian compatriots Pierre and Jesse – high five each other and take photos of each other’s blackened faces, hair and necks. Our smiles stand out white against the black on our faces.

It’s been a good day!

The only way to describe it is in the lingo of excited Nicaraguans…

Diakachimba!

(Next week we’ll play out the final week of this Nicaraguan adventure)

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