Saturday, April 20, 2013

Good & Bad = Life in This World Today

Before I even begin to recount my comings and goings on this week, I want to pay tribute to all of those harmed in any way, first responders, individual Good Samaritans, and those involved in the finding of those who committed the heinous act of cowardice against innocent victims in Boston. And, the same good thoughts for those suffering in West, TX.

Peace be with you all!

This is the 2nd time I've had to start a post with such sadness and utter dismay at what is going on. The first being the Newtown, CT slaughtering of our children and their care givers.

I am deeply saddened by these events. And, then I am deeply uplifted by the compassion given by strangers to strangers in times of need with no hesitation!  I continue to insist that this world is filled to the brim of GOOD, HONEST, HEARTFELT people!!!!!  Only the few who are evil continue to wreak havoc on all others.

Before we embarked on this journey, I had read over and over again and now that we're actually making this journey, I hear it often from individuals about the danger and crime in the countries we have already been to or are going to. We're no "Poly Anna's" but we certainly won't let our lives be held hostage!

However, Mike & I have NEVER felt our safety has been at peril in any manner whatsoever at no time throughout the beautiful countries we have been a guest of.  We have taken local bus transportation everywhere and at all times of day and night. We have taken taxis day and night. We have walked and walked day and night in big cities and small towns. We are careful and mindful our surroundings.

You can do many things to mitigate danger wherever you are in the world but you can't make it all not happen but sometimes you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  This has been true since the beginning of time. Life just IS sometimes!

With this, Mike & I forge on and enjoy every moment that is given to us on this beautiful place called Earth!  With this, we try and share our joy for living with others! With this, Mike & I love each other ever more each moment of every day we have together!

Our week began with both of us not feeling well.  Mike began complaining about both of his ears being swollen and very sore.  My home diagnosis was that he has swimmer's ears.  His walk to the doctor's office on Sunday revealed that they too take time off. So he had to wait until Monday to make an appointment, which he did immediately Monday morning and was able to get right in.  Yup, swimmer's ears!  Doctor's visit - $50; ear drops - $25; antibiotics - $58.  We calculated that the antibiotics alone in the states would have been $130 based on what we paid for the same drug before at home.

I have been having a tummy issue that slowly got worse. A very bad case of Montezuma's revenge is probably the most tactful way of putting it. So off we went to buy all bottled water to be used for everything I ingest. And, after doing so since Sunday, I can emphatically say that all is well!!  I did take 3 Imodium on Sunday that at least let me go outside.

Monday evening we had made a date with Jesse Bishop Gay to have dinner with him and his wife, Susan. Jesse picked us up and brought us back to their home, which is just down the road in Langosta.  A beautiful and charming stucco home with beautiful color and art throughout as Susan is quite a fabulous painter!!

After a great time getting to know each other and talking about being expats in Costa Rica, we headed out to Huacas for dinner at a place we've not been to but one of their favorites, Punto Tranquilos.  We ordered a large platter of chicken wings, ribs, sausage, sauces, and garnished with cucumber and tomatoes.  Yummm!!  More conversation and a great night was had by all!

Actually, we stayed in all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday trying to get back on track except for our evening outings.  We did go down to hear Jesse again at The Beach Club on Tuesday but left early because Mike's ears started to give him pain again.  We were trying hard to get "well" enough to be able to make our trip to Nicaragua on Thursday, which we accomplished!!

Getting up at 4:00 AM Thursday morning was no easy feat for us!! Actually, any time we have to set an alarm we get a bit cranky! LOL  The van picked us up right on time at 4:30am in front of our apartment and off we headed north in the pitch dark. Not much goes on in town at this time of the night we found out.  We picked up a family of 5 from South Africa along the way.  We were to meet up at the tour offices in Liberia and pick up a few more for our trip to Nicaragua for the day.

There ended up being 12 of us plus our tour guide, David, and our driver, Michael.  Our first stop was in downtown Liberia for breakfast at El Zaguan, a beautiful old building with original construction. Excellent choice with very good food! It also gave us a chance to get to sit with each other and start to get to know each other's stories. And, to fill out border crossing paperwork.


We arrived at the border just before 8:00am, which was the goal to get there before the large tour buses from San Jose.  If we didn't, our timing to get through the 2 passport stamp process could be hours rather than minutes.  Yeah, we did it!  On the Costa Rica side, our driver could take all of our passports and get them stamped but in Nicaragua, we had to go into the offices for the stamping.



At the Costa Rican border, we exchanged some CR money into US dollars.  Nicaragua won't recognize colones but they do accept US dollars. Go figure! After passing through Costa Rica, we had to go through Fumigation. Yup, we got sprayed with "something" for pests.  Hummm, don't you think those pests could just fly over the open border??  Our guide says it's a way to get money since it's a Nicaragua requirement.

Have you ever crossed a border besides the Canadian or Mexican border out or into the US or when flying into another country at the airport??  If not, then you've NEVER seen anything like this!!  Amazing that it even works!  A total free for all with trucks, cars, walking people everywhere trying to get through.  Trucks and cars passing each other in wrong lanes going the wrong direction - you think - and then, VOILA!, you're through. Fascinating!!

The very first thing you notice in this developing country is how simply awesome the roads are.  That is no joke!! They are fabulous, beautiful, smooth and beautifully paved with markings!!  What a huge difference from Panama and Costa Rica.  You also begin to notice street lights and good above ground wiring. You might think this is silly but when you've been surrounded by pot holed roads, construction and torn up roads that's taking absolutely years to complete, and wiring that looks like a 2 year old got ahold of a ball of yarn, you begin to notice and appreciate these differences.



And, then you see horse/ox drawn carts everywhere that are used as delivery trucks and taxis and you get snapped back into the reality that this country still has a foot in the past. The dichotomy is striking!

Other observations are that for the most part, the road sides are clean of garbage. Do you see it here and there, yes, but not like you do in Panama.  I certainly don't want to seem like a broken record at this point but am trying to point out differences.  Panama's garbage is a huge issue to us.  Don't know if it will be the deciding factor or not but it's the ONE thing that keeps coming back to us over and over again. CR is much cleaner too.

You begin to notice a huge disparity between housing.  Either its small block homes or much larger very wealthy nice homes.  Not much in between - or middle class. What's really noticeable though is that even though there is a large less fortunate population, they care for their homes. They are almost always free of garbage and junk on the outside. Very neat and cleanly swept dirt areas around their homes.  Dirt is most prevalent because there is no grass and water is not wasted on watering lawns.

As you go north, almost immediately Lake Nicaragua is comes into view looking to the east.  On our way, we were treated to seeing Dennis Martinez' resort on Lake Nicaragua. For those not "in the know", he's a wonderful baseball pitcher from Nicaragua and played from 1976-1998 throughout the league.  He now has a camp for Nicaraguan children in Florida. 

Lake Nicaragua is HUGE! It's the largest lake in Central America, the 9th largest in the Americas, 19th largest in the world, and covers 3,191 sq miles!  There is an island in the center with 2 volcanos and the land mass is larger than the Island of Hawaii.  Before the Panama Canal was built, Nicaragua was once considered as a very viable location for the canal as only 12 miles would have had to be dug to reach the Pacific due to the river San Juan River connecting the lake to the Caribbean.  However, politics intervened and it was built in Panama.





As we entered the city of Granada, you immediately see the colonial influence everywhere! Beautifully colored homes with stunning architecture line the streets. The city made us think of New Orleans only there are not many second stories.  The homes are built in a square with a courtyard in the center and the front of the homes opening immediately onto the sidewalks that are fairly wide and level and in great condition! So walking here is a much easier thing to do.





Our tour of the city began by taking a horse & buggy ride through the city with stops along the way. Our first stop was at a hand made cigar establishment. Although I don't smoke, the aroma was blissful!!  Come to find out, most of the tobacco in Cuban cigars comes from Nicaragua, not Cuba!! Didn't know that. The hand rolling process was done within the parameters of an actual home and is done only when the tobacco is harvested.


YES!! Those little cars are actually taxis!! Adorable and efficient!

 


Yup, that's Arnold!!


 
From there we continued down the street to a very old church built in the 1700's.  We climbed the 50 very narrow steps to the bell tower to capture a most stunning view of the whole city! No words to describe the beauty, so enjoy the pictures.  As the city sits on the lake shore, you'll see a good view of it.





 




 

Proceeding down the road you continue to admire home after home some with store fronts run out of the living room area.  In the old part of town, you won't find grocery stores only individual shops selling fresh vegetables and the next selling meats, etc. Everything fresh!  There are a few modern grocery stores on the outskirts of town where there is newer construction but not many.

The Central Square is gorgeous!!  Beautiful huge homes side by side facing the very large park and
Cathedral.  Lots of activity going on with cafes, arts and crafts, and we even saw a cooking competition with all of the chefs dressed in their white with caps.  A truly hustling, bustling city with much charm and history.  We definitely want to spend more time here!!






After passing the square you fairly quickly come to the lake shore where there is a long pier, beautiful park that's currently being completely redone with cobblestone, plantings, and benches, and entry into the government owned entertainment park. You pay to get into the park that has a wonderful beach, lots of playgrounds, restaurants, bars, and the tour boats. 



Our tour include a boat ride through the 350 individual islands that dot the shoreline. There is a beautiful estuary with many different kinds of birds, flora, caimans (we didn't see any), and other wildlife. These islands are inhabited and many of the wealthy have homes here, as you will see from our pictures. Also, there are less fortunate inhabitants that live out here with land having been passed down through the generations. There is even a very small island that is now inhabited by 4 monkeys that were rescued by a wealthy veterinarian who lives on an adjacent island.  This was truly the highlight tour of our travels so far!





 




 
We were supposed to go to the Masaya Volcano Park but the park was closed due to volcanic activity.  It's one of the most active volcanos in Central America and gets closed regularly. Other than Arenal, we've had bad luck with volcanos on this trip.  But our reward was the boat tour, so definitely didn't feel cheated!

From there we continued in our bus to the town of Masaya. Although not a truly beautiful city, it's very charming and is the center of much commercial activity for the country. It's located between Granada and the capital city of Managua. In the center square is a Merchandise Market completely surrounded by a very old block wall built in 1881 with beautifully made local crafts and good.  Before being let loose in the market for an hour, we had lunch at one of the open air restaurants with delicious, healthy portions of food. One of the best meals we've had anywhere!





Mike & I are not in the acquisition mode so did spend our American money on roasted cashews, cocoa cookies, a beer and a water, and coffee.  So we did contribute to the local economy.  There is very little outside investment here, which is good and bad. You won't see McDonalds, Burger King, or KFC here but the lack of investment has kept the disparity of living classes way apart.  Pretty much you are either rich or poor.  The tourist dollars are critical to their economy.  The minimum monthly wage is only $100, whereas in Costa Rica it's $480.

Everywhere we went, we were treated with a smile and most times a HUGE smile and a hug. I bought the cookies from an old lady with the biggest smile and hugs! Actually, she's a shrewd business woman.  I had encountered her when entering the restaurant and admired her bags of pure cocoa but didn't buy anything. She later found me at the bar and came to me with her arms held out and a toothless charming smile. Of course I bought the cookies since the cocoa was gone!! How could I refuse??!!  Mike's not a fan of the cookies, though.

After this stimulating shopping experience, we continued on to the small village of Catarina. This village is another arts & crafts town with beautiful plants and garden pottery.  At the end of the road, it dead ends at Laguna Apoya. This is a beautiful lake in a dead caldron of a volcano. Very similar to Crater Lake in the US.  Gorgeous views!!





Having completed a loop around Masaya Volcano, we headed back to the border with the goal of being there by 5:00pm.  Again, to beat the other tour busses, which we did.  The process was the same only in reverse and we were quickly back in Costa Rica.  A very successful Nicaraguan trip under our belt! 

What it taught us was that we definitely needed to leave all the nay sayers to their own opinions.  Keep an open mind and explore the world! We fell in love with the country and are planning on adding it to our travel plans next year.  It's a must do over a longer period of time to explore and enjoy!!  Managua and San Juan del Sur to be added to the agenda.

On our beach walk yesterday, Mike & I are now beginning to talk about continuing our travels south and east until we actually make it around the world. We decided to think about going to Australia, New Zealand, maybe a stop in Fiji once we're finished with South America, then going up to Spain and Europe next Spring and then continuing on to Thailand and Malaysia before coming back around. And, now that we experienced Nicaragua, we're thinking we should go back for longer and throw Guatemala, Belize, and do another stop in Mexico.

Amazing how the world has become our playground!!  Dreams and wishes DO come true!

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