Chaos

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It’s with my heart filled with sadness, disappointment, confusion and a bit of anger that I start this new post today. Don’t worry, I won’t be arguing about why I think the UK (and the rest of us) is better in than out of the European Union as this is not the place to do that. Instead I intend to tell you about my experiences of Nature unleashing its power here in Nicaragua: a storm at the top of a volcano, torrential rain and a 6.1 earthquake. I was thinking of waiting to do the Masaya Volcano Tour (active volcano) before writing this but I thought that might be tempting faith, so I’m going to play it safe and assume that nothing will go wrong there (all I’d need really would be an eruption…). As it was all a bit chaotic, I think today is good timing to release the article as I feel that it’s all chaotic out there too.

I wasn’t too bothered with doing tours here in Leon as I’d done all that in Granada (you can read my ‘Volcanoes and Superheroes” post about it). But as at Sonati they fund Environment Education classes with the cash they make on tours, I thought, why not, it will be nice, I might see lava AND I get to feel good about myself for adding my little something to help the environment. So the “Telica Sunset” it was. I was told “it’s such an easy hike you can do it running”, so I was reassured that I’d be fine with my little trainers – as my hiking shoes were sent back to now-not-in-the-EU-anymore UK with Cabbage.

We left at 4pm, just on time to make it for the sunset up there on the Telica. I’ll tell you now that I wasn’t at all prepared! The guide asked me if I had a big bottle of water, a flashlight and a snack and I said no to all 3. The 4×4 drove us as high as it could on the volcano, that took about 1h I’d say, and there were moments I was really pleased we had a good car and a great driver…

The hike up there was indeed not a difficult one, with wonderful views and with some non menacing clouds on the horizon.

View of the Telica
Clueless…

Once up there, you can also enjoy a nice cold beer if you wish as there’s a guy who appears out of the blue with cold drinks… I keep making stories about him and can’t decide whether he lives in a cave with bats (there are cave with bats up there on the Telica) and uses lava to barbecue his food OR if he just magically teleport himself when there’s a group approaching…

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Anyway, let’s go back to the storm. So all was well, although we did have to fight our way through clouds of sulfur, at which point a girl in the group handed over whatever she had in her bag that could be used to protect our mouths and noses – I got her jumpsuit and she helpfully said “you might want to use the top bit for your nose, not the bum bit”. I did thank her and follow the advice…

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The wind turned a few times on our way up, and because of a mix of sulfur clouds and just normal clouds, we couldn’t see the lava so we headed for the sunset, hoping that the crater would have cleared by the time we came back. Instead, the sky turned menacing, dark clouds came out of the blue (a lot seems to turn up out of the blue up there…) and the guide said “Guys, no time for selfies, we have to go down NOW”. Mild panic in the group, as within minutes, we were in the thick of the clouds, it got dark, it started raining (with something that felt like ice hitting us) and quickly enough the thunder and lightnings were surrounding us along with torrential rain. We were IN the storm (would have preferred being IN the EU still but hey, one can’t get too picky).

Because photos are worth a thousand words…taken by some of my fellow “survivors”:

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The group split in 2, the first group went down running (for their lives) while I stayed behind with a friend and the guide, making my way down carefully, trying 1) not to fall 2) not to get lost (the friend and guide were actually a little behind me and it was so dark and raining so hard, I could barely see the path or their flashlight) 3) not to get struck by lightning. I was holding onto my camera (it didn’t like it much) and my small bottle of water thinking…”if we all get stranded here, I have to keep this bottle of water!” and wondering if we’d make it to the front page if anything was to happen (and if that’s how my family would find out!). I also thought it would be just as well to canoe down, with all the water it felt more like a waterfall than a volcano.

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When I looked up “how to avoid being struck by lightnings”, it mainly said “The key to lightning safety is simply avoiding being in the wrong place at the wrong time”…so that’s where I went wrong!

Short video of the way down: Telica volcano (Video: Philip Vertriest)

It was quite an experience really.. But I’m happy to report that we all made it back almost entirely unharmed, if not a little traumatised for some of us. Thinking back, I don’t know how I didn’t panic more. We had a couple of scary lightnings and thunder hitting pretty close to us… Once in the car, soaking wet with the aircon on full blast to avoid steamy windscreen, freezing, we all took a couple of minute to recompose ourselves and then started laughing and sharing stories… I think it was partly shock, partly denial.

The rain here, along with the lightnings, can be quite impressive. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen as many lightnings in my lifetime as I’ve seen in the past 2 months here in Nicaragua. They are so beautiful to watch, from the confort of a sheltered hammock… The rain is also, well, tropical I guess. When I arrived to Leon I overheard someone saying that it had rained so much the past 2 days that the kids were “swimming” in the streets. But here in Leon, rain is almost always a blessing. As you start feeling it’s cooling effect within minutes of the first drops falling. In other communities however, it’s a different story. Most people stay at home when it starts raining too much as access to/from their homes can get flooded, muddy and slippery. Some factories have to stop working (such as the salt factories) which also means workers stop being paid…but that’s another story.

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Just a little rain (Photo: Philip Vertriest)

Nicaragua is the land of volcanoes (it’s even on its flag) and is on a seismic fault. So when it’s not a volcano erupting causing chaos, it might be the tectonic plates. The latest one happened a few weeks ago, while I was sipping a Victoria Frost (local beer) at Imbir, enjoying a very good gig (listen here). At first it felt a little bit like when you’re in a bar above/below/near the tube in London. But it lasted what felt like a very long train passing, the chandeliers and ceiling fan were swinging – oh I failed to say that I was sitting right under the said fan – and everybody stopped talking… that’s when we all realised what was happening.

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Once again, I probably should have been a little more worried as I’ve experienced the 85’ Mexican earthquake when I was a little kid (one that killed millions), but instead I thought “oh well…it’s moving” and also gave me that little excitement. Once the big of it was over, we all smiled, the band commented they were pleased that the Earth itself was applauding them and carried on playing.

It’s only afterwards that I realised that this was rather big: 6.1 on the Richter scale, they closed all the schools the next day, evacuated the hospital (which probably says more about the hospital than the earthquake itself) and my colleague urged me to get back home asap. The epicentre wasn’t far, and luckily for Leon didn’t cause too much damage – unlike in Chinandega where all hell broke lose, they keep having smaller ones since – but they recorded over 1000 aftershocks in the area.

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I was in bed that night, not too long after, and was reading about it on social media, this had made it to the US and Dutch news funnily enough, and commenting to my dorm-mate when the door opens and a rather scared couple walks in: “I’ve heard you talk about the earthquake…what are you going to do? Are you going to leave Leon?!” they said… At that point I was in my PJs in bed. “Errr… no. Why would I?” I responded. It was their first ever experience with an earthquake and had no idea what to expect, what to do, where to go…and they were actually scared. I did my best to reassure them, and from then on we hang out together while they stayed in Leon. This is how you make new friends!!

When I then went to visit the Laguna de Asososca (also known as the Laguna del Tigre), which is also a crater lake but a lot wilder than the Apoyo one near Granada, and saw the dark clouds coming towards the laguna, over the volcano… I told my friend to get our of the water, get her stuff and start climbing our way back up.

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Laguna de Asososca
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Petit Buddha enjoying the view

If you ever make it there, it’s a nice place, very quiet, loads of ants but also full of gorgeous colourful butterflies everywhere, and worth seeing. You should however be aware that the little road up and then down to the laguna is a little rough and I was glad we made it back just on time as it poured down the second we’d got out of the “dangerous” bit. We then had to wait in the finca (those who look after the place) and hope that the rain would stop (it did) and that our little moto taxi would be able to come and pick us up as scheduled despite the mud (he did too). We rewarded ourselves with a nice Quesillo, which is the specialty of La Paz Centro (the town closest to the laguna).

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I have a friend, if he reads this he will recognise himself, who always says I bring bad (and by bad he means apocalyptic) weather. He doesn’t want to go on holidays with me anymore… He recently told me that he didn’t need to ask me where I was because: (his exact words were) “I know exactly where you are thanks to http://www.tropicalstormrisk.com”. At least he can’t blame the #brexit on me!!

Next, read about Las Penitas and my first hitchhiking experiences and other interesting ways to travel here in Nicaragua. Follow me in Instagram too if you want to find out whether I end up seeing lava at the Masaya volcano…!

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“Muy Nicalientísimo” or a place called Leon

I left the Corn Islands with a little parting gift: an upset stomach and a fever. After half of Little Corn got sick, I thought I’d gotten through the storm unharmed…wasn’t I wrong! Luckily, the plane back was a lot bigger than the one to Corn and also, thanks to AirBnb again, a lovely colonial house with a great host was awaiting us in Managua. It was Cabbage’s last night and needless to stay whatever bacteria I had in my body didn’t stop me from crying my eyes out those last few hours together. Of course I was pleased to have another 2 months left to travel solo (well…with Petit Buddha), but leaving one’s Cabbage* is never easy…

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Cabbage & Coquillette (that’s me)

 

*I’ve realised I haven’t properly introduced you to my Cabbage although most of you will have guessed: he’s my amazingly talented partner and if you fancy meeting him, and listening to his music, you can click here [I’m not ashamed of plugging and also I want to clarify I’m not getting any financial reward for this :P]

 

So there I was, in Casa Inti, with a fever and puffy eyes, watching the taxi driving away to the airport. I decided to stay an extra night so I could feel a bit better and handle the ride to Leon. At Great Corn airport, we had met this lovely Dutch couple who had been volunteering in Leon and they gave me the contact details of their charity saying that they were “desperate” for some volunteer to work with their communities. So once the fever was gone and the appetite was back I decided to go to Leon, for a few days at least, to see what that organisation had to offer.

In my time at Casa Inti however, I met the most wonderful couple from Montreal (Quebec), Catherine and Philippe as well as the lively French/Togolese Theo. My stay there was worth it just for the opportunity it gave me to meet them. Si vous lisez le Français et que vous aussi vous voulez les connaitre, lisez leur blog [Les Blonds] – il est genial! As it often happens in these sorts of trips, I got the chance to see them again, here in Leon. The host, Inti, was most helpful and happened to be half Nica, half Belgian!

So I started this next bit of my journey solo in Leon. After an hour or so in a minibus, that had aircon for less than $2, I arrived in this strange colonial city, known for it’s political influence throughout Nicaragua’s history. My first impressions of this place:

  • it’s less polished (more authentic) than Granada
  • there are LOTS of churches (22 in fact, just in Leon)
  • streets don’t have names (same in Managua I believe, and they oriente themselves based on churches (or other landmark if you are so unlucky to live far from a church): from Iglesia Recolection, 1 c. al norte, 1 c. abajo
  • 28 degrees feels cold – it’s so very, unbelievably, unbearably, hot (that’s maybe a good opportunity to explain the title of this post…it actually gives an idea of how hot it was the day I told my colleague “I will call my next post Nicaliente” – Nica + caliente which means hot – she laughed at the play on words. The following day, we were walking from one ATM to the next, desperate for air conditioning, when I said “I think it should actually be “Muy Nicalientísimo” which isn’t actually correct but could be the equivalent of saying “most hottest”)
  • here too they have colourful doors and great sets of rocking chairs (now I know they are called “abuelitos” (little grandpas) and are probably all over Nicaragua! )

A bicycle ride away from the bus terminal, I found this nice little NGO hostel called Sonati and set off to discover what was going to be “my home away from home”. The day following my arrival, I met the organisation called Mpowering People and all of its 2 employees and the deal was sealed. That same afternoon I was out and about, for a meeting with one of the communities they work with. I have so much to say about this, I have decided to keep it for the end as I will have a total of 7 weeks working with them. In the meantime, if you want to look them up, they’re on Facebook and Instagram.

I had the plan, for this trip, to surf everyday and volunteer for at least 2 months, but sometimes life takes you on a different path and whatever the reason, I feel it is right for me to be here. Despite the heat, did I mention the heat?!?

I decided to commit to Mpowering People for 7 weeks, which meant I’d be staying in Leon for at least as much. Day 3 I started wondering if I was going to be able to follow through as I could barely handle the humidity and the heat (nearly 40 degrees everyday, dropping to 37 at night…). But here I am, week 5 and counting. The next posts will be about my mini-adventures here in one of the hottest cities in the world (on average temperatures), city that I’ve learned to love.

SweetCorn – the Caribbean side of Nicaragua

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So Cabbage and I continued our little trip, from Granada to Managua airport (I got the time wrong and we ended up arriving at the airport a safe 5 hours early…luckily we managed to get on the earlier flight – I’ll pretend I had everything to do with it but really the lady at the counter took pity on us) and off to the Corn Islands. Random fact #1: there’s no corn on Corn Islands.

If I thought I’d seen the smallest plane when I left Roatan, I was clearly mistaking. We were 12 passengers and the flight was surprisingly calm. Within 1h30 we could see Great Corn and its turquoise blue waters. Also, although it wasn’t the season, it’s the land of lobsters!! Random fact #2: back in the days, lobsters were cheaper than clean water there.

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Cabbage landed in Great Corn
After much toing and froing, we’d decided to skip Big Corn and spend the week on Little Corn, so we set for the “panga” taking us from Great to Little in about 40mins. A “panga”, you must know, is no more than a little boat and when I saw it I understood why we were told that they sometimes have to cancel them when the conditions aren’t good. We made a nice encounter while waiting for the 4pm panga; William, a local with no teeth who loves Rock’n’Roll and who looked at Cabbage’s guitar with loving eyes and kindly played a few tunes for us. Also, William was wearing an Obama shirt! Random fact #3: they speak English creole more than Spanish here.

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Little corn has a special vibe. No cars…well, actually barely any roads! We walked about 20mins to get to our hotel, Las Palmeras (the address is “500 Meters West of Wharf”) and quickly after, we’d dropped our stuff and were eating seafood with our feet in the sand. We were also told to “make sure all your phones and appliances are charged at night!” because they cut electricity from 6am to 1pm every day. No electricity also means no fridge… Random fact #4: they can cut off the water for 2 weeks with almost no notice – they did that a day before we left! People aren’t phased by it though, it is what it is and they work around it.

The main reason we went to the Corn Islands was to dive, so we set off to one of the two diving shops on the island, Dive Little Corn. Surely there would be my chance to see Eagle rays as I didn’t get to see any in Roatan! NOT. But despite our quite disastrous first dive (including Cabbage running low on air and us two having to go back up on our own – something to remember for our first dive together!), I saw a reef shark, a few nurse sharks and dolphins twice! Once from the boat and the second time on my last dive, while diving. They’re just amazing animals, so much bigger when you’re just a few meters from them! So that automatically puts Little Corn in the top diving sites I think – although I’m conscious I’m only done 2 so far! Random fact #5: you can hear dolphins from quite far under water!

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#coolcouple
Another highlight was that Cabbage had another moment of fame! Indeed, one of the bars (Café Desideri) asks musicians to make themselves known and play if they want. The couple who manages the hotel introduced us to the owner – who happens to be Canadian/Vietnamese! – and the date was set. He even had an opening act: Mr James. Mr James is a local, he set foot on the island when he was a young boy and is now 85 years old and is known and loved by pretty much everybody on the island. Random fact #6: Mr James was introduced as “grand-father or great-grand-father to most people here on the island”…cheeky or what Mr James!?!

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Mr James and his Calypso songs
Cabbage played a beautiful set with a couple of new songs and he raised $140 for NicaVets to come on the island. Little Corn has big problems with stray dogs so the work they do is actually essential. Random fact #7: people on the island believe that there are pirates’ treasures still hidden but that they are guarded and that if you find one and take it, your soul will be damned and made prisoner to guard the treasure until the next person tries to steal it. They actually have stories of people who found things and died shortly after taking it… I’d better leave the gold then…!

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The other good thing about Little Corn is that, unlike some other paradise islands, the locals live among the tourists and other cheles (that’s how foreigners, usually white, are called in Nica). And that’s likely to stay that way, because most of them don’t want to sell to foreigners, despite copious amount of money being offered (they have the best spots by the sea). On the North side of the island, known for providing the Robinson Crusoe experience and the best beaches, there are quite a few hostels and hotels, but you can also stumble across an old fisherman’s hut. Cabbage and I thought that it was important that efforts towards keeping the local included are made as Little Corn won’t be the same when it becomes a big resort spot (like West Bay in Roatan). That said, and despite the fact that we were told the island was safe and we didn’t have any issue, we felt there was an odd vibe there with the locals at times. Although they seem to accept our presence, I’m not convinced they’re that happy to share their mangoes with us. Random fact #7: there are 11 types of mangoes on Little Corn and when you walk around you can easily pick them off the floor!

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On the way to the North side – baseball court

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Cabbage & the fro (and me)

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Luuuuuuuuurv’
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Two big issues on the islands, in my opinion, would be lack of serious education (level at school is shocking – and that goes hand in hand with unemployment that is high on the island) and lack of awareness for the environment (and that goes with pollution and trash). I was told that a lot of them grow up with little option but becoming fisherman (at best) or wheelbarrow pusher (is that even a job!?!). The lucky (and wealthier) few get the opportunity to open a restaurant.

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Trash I collected from the beach/water not far from our lovely hotel 😦

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The Church got it right – who wants Jesus to hit them with a sword!?
However all is not doom & gloom, don’t forget we’re still on a paradise island and people there are super nice and seem very happy and most are very proud to be from Little Corn. Not just from Corn Islands. Not even from Nicaragua. But ‘born & bread’ in Little Corn. That reminds me a little bit of me with New Caledonia!

I want to give special thanks to (and I know they might no read this):

  • the lovely Canadian couple (Raneem, Justin & their cute dog Shorty) who manages Las Palmeras – they were just the best!
  • Mai-Lynn, the owner of Cafe Desideri – not only she organised the best gig for cabbage but she was also a life saver with her homemade chicken soup when he was K.O. with fever in bed. She also makes the best Vietnamese pressed iced-coffee (sadly I don’t have photos of the life-saving-chicken-soup…)
  • Macarena from Dive Little Corn – for loving Flamingo Tongues as much as I do and also for pushing me to take Petit Buddha diving with us so I could get a shot of him underwater (although I’m still waiting to be sent the photo 😦 )

 

We ended the trip with 1 night & 1,5 days on Great Corn and we wished we could have spent a little more time. People we met were friendly, beaches we saw were gorgeous. If you get to go, make sure you dive Blowing Rock – we missed the opportunity and I’m still a bit gutted about it…it was my last chance of the trip to spot Eagle rays!

Corn Islands sure were sweet…

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❤ Little Corn

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Goodbye sweet sweet Corn!
Last night before the re-start of my solo adventure was spent in Managua in the other great Airbnb find of the trip: Casa Inti. I’ll talk about it in my next post! Also next up: Leon, or the definition of “Muy Nicalientissimo”.

Volcanoes and Superheroes 

Beautiful, colonial, Granada, is surrounded by volcanoes, lakes and lagunas. We decided to set “camp” there and explore the area from there.

If I was to write only 1 thing about what made these few days so special, I would write AirBnB (wait…wait!). We stayed in the most gorgeous colonial house with the greatest hosts: Erik (Dutch) and Bertha (Nica – by the way, this is how they call themselves in short for Nicaragüense and is not offensive although it could sound it). Not only they had the lovely Rosa looking after us (cooking the nicest breakfasts) but they also had Batman & Robin (cuddliest cats) and Thor…the cutest Sharpei puppy ever #superheroes123. If you ever go to Granada and want a little haven of peace for your stay, lots of comfort, and a pool to cool down after a hot day, contact Erik. If he’s already full, look into Miss Margrits – Chris (a Londoner) has a beautiful and huge colonial guesthouse that he made into a hotel there. Of course this isn’t the budget/broke backpacker option.

My first impressions of Granada:

  • There’s a lot of expats – but they’re young and entrepreneur.
  • They live off tours: hike a volcano, swim in a laguna, zip line a jungle, visit an artisan market and a former political prison or learn the ancestral ceramic making techniques…
  • They’ve got a lot of cute cafés and horses roaming free by the lake
  • It’s hot
  • They have gorgeous colourful doors
  • They have amazing sets of indoor rocking chairs – we so want one for London!
  • Colonial houses almost all have indoor patios opened on the rest of the house

As we didn’t have much time there we decided to go the “tourist” way and go on tours.

First tour: Laguna de Apoyo

If you ever hoped that both Jurassic Park and The Beach were real…you have to go to the Laguna de Apoyo. This place is a little eerie, and beautiful. The Laguna is actually a crater lake, so the water is naturally warm, and meant to be good for the skin with all its minerals. We borrowed a kayak and went on a little tour to see the shore from the lake: it’s green and lush and just beautiful. I was told it is home to species endemic to that laguna (and I’m picturing something like the Loch Ness…). We welcomed anything to escape the city heat with open arms but this was way more than “anything”.


Second tour: Mombacho hike

We’re rebels. So we asked for the tour no one does…the LONG hike at the top of the volcano. It took my cabbage sweetheart a bit of convincing as I’m not the best hiker but in the end it went a bit like that:

Me: hum..I’m not sure, they said you had to be in good form and that some of it was pretty steep…!?

Cabbage: don’t be a pussy. We’re adventurous.

Me: if you put it that way. Let’s do it.

The guide we had was great and made the nearly-4h hike really worth it. A 4×4 takes you nearly to the top of the chain of craters, where you can taste coffee and you hike the top. Some of it WAS pretty steep but it I didn’t regret it – although I might have said “we’re never going on a hiking holiday, ever”… Not that much for the striking views of the Isletas or the lake as it was overcast and we couldn’t see much but the jungle was gorgeous and we learnt so much about survival plants and flowers (we even ate some), we had some good laughs with the guide (we learnt that ‘cochon’ here can mean gay and/or coward) and we saw the pretty red-eye tree frog, it’s eggs, a sloth (he was even moving…at a decent pace, on our way in he was moving from the branch and by the time we came back, he’d made it to the one just on above) and a few howler monkeys.
The path was full of big spiderwebs, their inhabitants growing confident that no one was ever walking them anyway… By the end, my legs were shaking, I felt like my body temperature had gone up 10 degrees and also that the humidity had made me gain 5kg is sweat…but I did it. #superhero4 – ok maybe that wasn’t that superheroic but at least I have taken on the challenge and even managed to enjoy it.

There is another volcano close to Granada, called Masaya, and that’s an active volcano with REAL lava that you can actually see! Sadly, they closed it a couple of weeks before we arrived and it reopened a couple of days after we’d left… (Check the next posts to see if I manage to come back and do it on my own!).

I’ll be posting a video of the frog, proof it’s not plastic!

Third tour: Pueblos Blancos

This tour includes a few things: Masaya artisan market, the school of ceramic, Coyotepe fortress and the laguna (that we had already seen). There isn’t much to say about the market but the Ceramic school and the fortress were very interesting and we learnt quite a bit. Coyotepe fortress was originally built in 1893 to protect Masaya from North American troops. Under Somoza dictatorship in 1944, a dungeon was built below and it became a political prison and although it changed hands when the Sandinistas took control in 1979, it was used as a prison until 1983. I was 2 years old. I say that because this wasn’t just your normal prison. They had 3 levels of dungeons with torture cells, some cells had no light at all. In some, they crammed prisoners in so they couldn’t sit, in some others they couldn’t stand for days… We saw those cells, walked in even and some still have the stains of blood, feces and marks made by prisoners going crazy as they didn’t see the light for months… It could “host” up to 800 prisoners at once and 90% were men (I’ll let you imagine what happened to the 10% of women in there…). Locals believe it’s haunted and even the local dog doesn’t want to go down the 2nd level…I can’t blame him. That was less than 30 years ago. But it’s now owned by the scouts who finally gave Coyotepe’s tortured past some peace… We only took a few photos and they don’t relay the horror of it.

Where you think it's a window, it was actually another cell where prisoners were put for days where they couldnt move

Other things we did:

  • We went out clubbing! Erik happens to own Weekends which is a club on the beach (lake) #coolkids
  • Cabbage played a spontaneous gig on our last night, at Café de los Sueños (opposite the school), with our hosts and their friends. It was of course a success! #superhero5
  • Play with Thor as much as possible and run after him every time he’d steal one of our smelly socks #superhero vs #vikingGod
  • Made friends #❤️

If I was to summarise I can’t really say that much about Granada as a city, we stayed mainly in the touristy center but Erik and Bertha shared not only their home with us but also their pets 😁 and most importantly their friends and kind hearts and that sure made it a success!

Next up soon…our adventures in the land of corn a.k.a Corn Islands

Nica Libre – Surf’s Up!

When deciding where to go on my Latin American tour, I knew I wanted to come to Nicaragua. At the time I didn’t have any more reasons than “it’s not Costa Rica, it’s less touristy, let’s go”. But I have now realised I love this country. People are nice, places are beautiful and they make a very decent rum!! (Flor de Caña).

This bit of my trip feels a little different as I’m with my sweetheart and we’ve planned sporty holidays: surf, hike and scuba (who knew we had it in us to be sporty?!?). We wanted to stay in one country to do all 3, so we drew a map of Latin America on the table with chalks in our fav restaurant in London – Gazette Brasserie for those interested –  and Nicaragua looked perfect.

To compensate however for the “luxury” I knew I’d have (by that I mean that I’m not allowed to book rooms without AC), I decided to bus it from Tegucigalpa to Managua. 8 hours and a typical border crossing, slightly enerving experience when it’s the first time.

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I was told this was the most unusual, long, nonsensical border crossing in the area. I was on a Tica bus, which is quite good actually, both in organising the trips and in comfort on the bus. The guy wouldn’t believe me when I told him I was French – he asked several times if I was sure I wasn’t neither from Honduras nor Nicaragua. I felt honoured! Could this mean my Spanish is getting better!? The scariest moment was when the Tica guy asked for our passport when we entered Nicaragua…I handed mine reluctantly and hoped to see it again. It took quite a long time to get through but eventually I was reunited with my ID and we were on our way.

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This gave me time to chat with other passengers on the bus: polish girl who had a badass hangover and was also travelling solo, a pair of DiveMasters who’d lived together on Utila as freelance DM and a girl from Managua who had travelled the world quite a bit and was on her way back from visiting friends in Honduras and El Salvador – she was very friendly and gave me her contact details in case I needed help while in Nicaragua. I’d been reading about how to get from the bus station to the airport and every article was warning me about “fake” taxis, kidnapping tourists for money so I wasn’t feeling particularly safe! Once I got out of the station, 5 guys came very close to me and shouted “taxi? taxi? which hotel?”, I picked one that had an “official” taxi and looked less threatening and off I was. I can tell you I had a couple of scenarios running in my head when he told me 5 minutes after we’d departed ” oh wait, there was a guy who also wanted to go to the airport, he was on your bus, let me see if I can find him…” and that he turned into small streets. But I started talking to him, asked his name, where he was from, if he had kids, where I was from and then I finally hit the spot: FOOTBALL. Him and his sons support Barcelona. His wife supports Madrid (now…I don’t know much about football but even I can see that as being an point of tension…). I think he didn’t have bad intentions to start with, but by the end of the ride, he was hugging me, “God blessing” me and sharing his secret for a long and happy marriage. Phew. I’d made it to the airport! With hindsight, I think it was all in my head.

Once I’d collected my partner in crime at the airport, next stop was Miramar Surf Camp, near Puerto Sandino, on the coast for 1 week of surfing. If I was to describe paradise, this would probably be close to it: surf every day, good vibes, hammocks and gorgeous sunsets. With crazy beautiful thunderstorms with lightings at night that make the sky look like a nightclub with it’s stroboscope. This place is owned by a bunch of Brazilians and they definitely know how to do it. Lovely staff there, nice & cheap massages (given by a Brazilian surfer, which isn’t a bad thing) and a big home baked cake for my birthday as a surprise 🙂

Spot the surfers!?

I progressed a bit while there: new board (not a foamy anymore!), I can pop up easy peasy lemon squeezy (well, on baby waves), I managed to catch a few on my own (which mean no little very-helpful-I-usually-cant-take-off-without-it-push from the coach) and I now have a Brazilian surfer dude boyfriend. We’re now officially the coolest couple on the planet. Besides, we know how to travel with class:

Our transport to the beginners’ beach – Tuk Tuk (or Tukie-Tukie as they say) coming all the way from India

 

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The camp from Miramar beach – our room was the top left one, view on the waves
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Petit Buddha enjoyed the first week in Nicaragua a great deal! He too can surf now…

Another thing I did while there was a beach clean. Pastor, our surf coach, organises these with the local kids (and the agreement of their parents). He invited me to join and of course I accepted. Like in many of these countries, recycling and even basic waste management is not really on their radar. It’s difficult to blame them, it’s not that long ago we were doing the same in our homes, when throwing the chewing-gum out the car window wasn’t a crime. I think there’s a lot of work to educate people about the benefits of recycling and the consequences of trashing streets, beaches, gardens and all. I was very upset about seeing so much rubbish everywhere in such a beautiful place but I guess that’s not helpful. Instead I’ll try and do something to make it better – or at least do my little bit #beachcleanup .

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Children of Miramar – beach clean

At first, when I asked them why we were doing it, they weren’t sure…”so the beach can be clean” they ventured. But when we started talking about it, they had lots of great ideas about it, they just needed a little encouragement to think about it themselves. Then we taught each others words in each others’ languages. Now I know how to say crab in Spanish and they know what playa is in English!

Good job done!!

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#beachcleanup #teammiramar

Time for our next stop: Granada, its colonial houses and beautiful volcanoes (next article!).

Sense of belonging…Roatàn

As I’m boarding this tiny airplane to Tegucigalpa (the capital of Honduras), I’m both sad to leave and excited for my next adventure.

This plane is so small, there isn’t space for an air hostess, there’s 19 seats actually, and I can see the pilot’s cabin. I’m at the back and I can actually read the panels in front of the copilot. The woman on my right just said a quick prayer and the one in front is still on the phone when the machine is shaking from left to right getting more speed, there are some odd cracking noises but we’re off! About 15mins EARLY. Needless to say this is an experience in itself, I was told the mountains and wind make landing quite technical so let’s see. I’m positively scared! [Update: my flight to Tegucigalpa, in fact, stopped in La Ceiba with a wobbly landing, where I had to wait for my “connecting flight” to the big capital. The second plane was a normal size which reassured me lots!]
  

 

 

 

 

When I started surfing, it was like I’d opened a whole new world: new  people, new places, new aches and also, a new sense of belonging. It’s very much the same with scuba diving. I feel like the world (just as my lungs – for real) has suddenly expended. I was recently reminded that about 70% of Earth’s surface is water. That means I just went from having 30% to 100% of the world to explore! Well…more or less, I’m not sure I’ll dive the Thames or the English Channel but you get the idea. What an extraordinary prospective…

I can also walk and nod politely to other divers with an unspoken understanding: I now “belong” to the crew. Only difference with surfing is that I less feel the need to explain that I can’t actually surf (“I’m not reeeeeeally a surfer, I’m learning!”and then you can avoid the discussion around which boards you own, which in my case is none)- I might not be the best diver yet but at the end of the day, I can go down and I can see stuff! I’m an Advanced Open Water diver. That’s a fact and I’m not gonna lie…I’m quite proud of myself! Isn’t “belongingness” one of the fundamental needs we have?! I’m slowly starting to feel more disconnected from my beloved City of London…if it wasn’t for the lovely souls I know out there (yes, you know who you are!).

 

Now a bit about my first impressions of Roatan.

Sadly I didn’t have the chance to visit much of the island and stayed in West End pretty much the whole time – which only means I will have to go back as I’ve been told the north and east of the island are mesmerizing…

When I told people I was going to Honduras, I saw looks of horror. Was I crazy?! Well, I can report that I felt very safe… This side of the island is extremely touristy, and although men might try and grab your attention and comment on your “physical attributes” (they’re Caribbean after all), it felt harmless enough. In the daylight anyway. A lot of Hondurans from the main land told me they loved it there and they felt it was so much safer than where they were from. When I asked my taxi driver what was the feeling towards the foreigners living there he said the main 3 expat communities were Americans, Canadian and Italians and added that if it wasn’t for them he wouldn’t have anything to bring back home. Not only they were welcome but there is a conscientious effort to maintain the image of Roatan being a gorgeous and safe place to visit or live. That said, even locals tell you what isn’t safe to do, for exemple:

  • Walk via the road from West End to West Bay (or vice versa) – at any time
  • Hang out in Coxen Hole on your own at night (especially if you’re a woman)
  • Walk on your own at night for any length on the sidewalk – they drive very fast, and there isn’t really much of a pavement so it’s quite dangerous as you’re very close to the road

It’s not as cheap as I imagined. Having such a big community of expats made Roatan a lot more expensive than the “tierra firma” (main land). Vegetables and most fruits are all imported and you have to look out for the small vendors – I used to buy delicious ready-to-eat-cut-for-you mangoes for 10 Lempiras (which is about £0.30) from the guy at the roundabout, such a yummy snack. For a quick & cheap lunch, I’d go for a “baleada” (that’s like a big fat tortilla filled with pretty much whatever you want)  for 30 Lempiras (less than £1). There are a few nice restaurants around and I got to eat lionfish – they’re on a mission to get rid of them (read more here) but they are very tasty (also very pretty when you see them on a dive!). I stayed in a hostel that charges £10 per night in dorms – La Buena Onda – but I wasn’t prepared for such a mosquito onslaught there! Life under the tropics has it downfalls and in Roatan, it’s definitely mosquitoes AND sand flies.

So there are ways to make it on the cheap – and compared to London of course, I’m still living the dream. I got to stay in a $40 a night room on the first night but with the most amazing view possible and about 45 seconds from my dive school… It’s all about perspectives, I have another 3 months to go, so I want to be conservative. For a holiday of course, and if you’re into diving, Roatan is possibly the best choice in the area.

If you want to know a bit more about my Advanced Open Water PADI course, what specialties I chose and what they entailed, you can read this here.

 

Roatan Adventures – PADI Open Water Diver

I had in mind to write more about Mexico first (the places, the food, the beers…ah yes, I’m making it a “Latin American beer tour” and will post about all the beers I’ve tried so far!) but today, something pretty cool happened and I wanted to share it with you.

Today, I completed my PADI Open Water certification!! For those of you who don’t scuba dive, the PADI Open Water is kind of the first level of diving certification. It includes some theory (5 sections with questionnaires and tests), 5 confined water dives to follow the theory (that can be done either in a pool or in shallow waters, in my case shallow water in a bay) and 4 open water dives (in the sea/ocean). I powered through it in 2,5 days and I am now allowed to dive to up to 18m/60ft underwater (or down to). Pretty cool…I know!

Why Roatan, Honduras? Because it’s meant to be THE best place in the world to learn, for 2 reasons: 1) it’s the cheapest place to do it 2) their reef is now the second biggest in the world, just behind Australia – and theirs is not bleaching…(to read about the terrible bleaching of the Australian AND New Caledonian reefs, click here). Also, looking at these photos, the question really should be, why not?

Why Roatan Divers? I wanted a “boutique” club that had a family feel. I just looked on Google and found them. But there are SO many centres in West End only… I checked at least 10, read hundreds of reviews, shortlisted 4, messaged them all, got more confused…When Saaya, one of the owners, responded so quickly and very helpfully, I had a good feeling about them. After calculating and recalculating budgets, I went for it mainly because with them, it’s 4 students per instructor MAX, and if there’s just you, then you get a 1-1 for the same price, which is a luxury I had (and she’s great!!). If you are interested in tips on what to look for when choosing a diving centre, you can have a look at my short page about it.

A bit about my journey through the course…

The highlights:

  • Theory is pretty easy. Only a couple of notions weren’t very natural for me, but once explained, it’s logical and some of it is also common sense. First thoughts: Humm..yeah I can do this.
  • I ‘wizzed’ through my confined water dives in one go (there are 5, corresponding to the 5 theory sections). I was in the water for 1h or so, did some exercises there, max dept was 3m. First impressions: Let’s see how the rest goes…I’m not sure about this breathing underwater malarky!
  • Because I was so amazing in the confined water sessions (ha! just kidding), I got to go “in the open” on day 1.5. Two dives – am & pm – and did some skills practice underwater and on the surface (swimming 200m without mask or fins – and choppy waters) and already quite a bit of exploring and I got the hang of my buoyancy. First sightings: 1 tiny black flounder, 2 Hawksbill turtles, lots of colourful fishes, a Flamingo Tongue, lots of ‘Xmas trees‘, little crabs, 2 barracudas, lots of groupers, little shrimps, 1 squid, a couple of lobsters – and interesting corals & sponges.
  • I now have a log book! That’s where I write all the information about my dives. Times, depth, weights, bar/PSI, impressions, what I saw and any important notes. I’ve also finished the tests for theory sections 1, 2 & 3. First hopes and doubts: So I clearly can do this. Wait, no. I’m scared. Did I really enjoy it? Yes, no. Maybe. Yes I want to do this! Humm, do I?!
  • Day 2.5. This is the day I get to complete the course (IF all goes well…see the ‘Lowlights’ for more). I nailed the final theory test (49/50 questions). Two more open water dives. Just a few more skills exercises to get through. This afternoon dive was unbelievable. The top 10 of things I saw: 5 stingrays, 2 green moray, another beautiful tiny Flamingo Tongue, 3 big Queen triggerfish a few ‘Dori’s’ – Surgeon fish, a big Nassau grouper, lots of Jawfish, a conch’s egg case. Hovering – Buddha pose, means you’re floating mid-water without moving, just breathing in & out – is pretty amazing! First accomplishment and goal reached: I’m a PADI Open Water certified diver!
  • Last big highlight is that it’s amazing to see how the island is trying to protect its beautiful resources. The Roatan Marine Park is working hard for it and Roatan Divers (I can’t speak for the others) are very supportive and always reminding you of ways you can can help protecting the environment and the marine life – for example, avoid eating lobster when not in season, don’t buy or pick-up shells, “each time you forget to turn the lights off, an angelfish dies” – and angelfishes are precious!

The lowlights (that’s when my L&D background kicks in…)

  • I disliked immensely the ‘fill your mask with salt water’ exercises: half-full of water, full of water, completely take the mask off and put it back, completely take the mask off AND swim 30 seconds before putting it back. Not cool and you have to do it at each dive (x4 – i.e underwater), to learn how to clear it if water gets in.
  • After my first day of Open Water dives, I’m scared. I can’t equalise my ears properly and it takes me forever to go down. I also can’t do my CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent) – that means coming up all the way just exhaling, you need to be able to exhale through your regulator for about 30s.
  • I need a prescription mask as I CAN see, better than without glasses on land, BUT it’s not that clear and it’s a shame to miss out on seeing stuff because you’re half blind!
  • Today, first dive, first (mild) panic attack.I struggled to do my CESA (but did it, just, in the end)…and it made me very nervous. I started breathing rapidly and panicked even more when had to do another mask exercise. If you’d asked me if I wanted to ever dive again at that point I would have screamed NO WAY JOSE.

In summary, I’m so happy I carried on and faced my fears. It’s ok to panic, what matters is how you get through it. Rays (any type of rays) are just gorgeous, majestic, graceful animals. I am hoping to see some Eagle rays while here. Ah, and also, I’ve signed up for the PADI Advanced course ;-). I start on Thursday (in 2 days), with a bang: a Night dive! Other specialties I’ve picked (you have 5 dives to do to get to Advanced level): Peak Performance Buoyancy dive (this is to get better at balancing and controlling your body in the water), Deep dive (this happens to also be a wreck dive!) to 30m, Navigation dive (to learn how to navigate underwater with a compass) and an Underwater Naturalist, which means I’ll get to see more beautiful little (and maybe big) things in the water. First realisation: I feel privileged to be in a world that isn’t my natural habitat and share it with the beautiful creatures that live down there. They merely accepted me in there and it made me feel small and special at once. The pleasure of diving relies on how we all look after our planet and oceans…  Beyond that it makes it so obvious why it’s so important to do so. So please think about it next time you buy plastic or throw something out the window..

To finish, I found this in my take-away bag from Wraps & Art – I feel it’s quite relevant right now!

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Inspiring encounters – Mexico

I was trying to think of the best way to start this blog – what could my first post be?! Then, 2 days ago, I had one of those mornings that make you believe that nothing happens by coincidence… and I also remembered what one of you told me before I left: write stuff down! where you go, who you meet. So I decided to start telling you about the lovely people I have met so far.

The great thing about staying in hostels, besides being cheap, is that you meet great people. My first stop was Playa Del Carmen, at the hostel Wonderous World. Within 30mins I was dragged out for drinks by the “family” at the hostel. Some had been staying in Playa for several months, some just a couple of weeks but we all had something in common: we all enjoy meeting new people, we love travelling and Mexican beer! As I only stayed 2 days, these friendships were short-lived but I feel inspired by each of them, their stories which confirmed I would never be alone in this trip if I didn’t want to. I wouldn’t be surprised if I bump into some of them some day.

Not so quiet at this time of the year (Spring Break!!)

Next stop was Baja California. Quick flight to Tijuana and headed to Rosarito and Ensenada. There is something weirdly
not-typically-Mexican about this place…maybe the climate (14C to 25C at most) or the fact that we ended up in an AirBnb flat with olive trees all over us,but amazing, that it was for sure. People are friendly and they drive slowly. An unexpected encounter was with the “Laguna lady”, near the Laguna de Hanson (also called Laguna de Juarez). This is a 2h drive from Ensenada, through the desert. The place is magical, feels like you’ve landed on the moon or something… We stopped for a quick snack at a little shop just before the entrance of the Laguna. When we asked for some burritos, she invited
us to her house, just behind the little shop. I felt very priviledged and slightly voyeurist at first as there were photos of her family all over the main wall and we could see the 2 very simple bedrooms full or her family things…the smell of the food was un unbelievable and the burritos disn’t disappoint. Everything was homemade, I had 2 of them and could have had many more…



She has 3 daughters, one of them lives in Tijuana and is part of the youth Olympic athletic team and she was proud to show us her medals. She let me take a photo with her. We came back for more on the way out of the Laguna and we asked if we could buy some of her salsa. Yummm…

After Baja California, I flew to Monterrey. Through my friend Norma, I met a lot of inspiring people! Estellita was one of them, president of the Rotary club – she was one of the first woman to get into the world of Finance in Mexico!
Then, having a coffee at La Boulange paisana I was introduced to the owner and when I mentioned my plan to volunteer during this trip he introduced me to Indira. Together they happen to have set up La Panacea (ONG on environment and arts). She offered her help to find me a charity in Latin America and I’m also hooking up another friend with them as she wants to volunteer in Monterrey.

I believe everything happens for a reason! I could name so many more people here that have already made my trip worthwhile…!!