Week 17: Three Slices of Life in Nicaragua
[Is this your first time reading about my trip to Nicaragua? I wrote a short primer on the country and the story about making the intrepid decision to go. Check them out, too!]
The campo. The bustling, working-class city. The colonial tourist destination.
Over the course of my one week in Nicaragua, I spent time in each of these representative areas of the country. A typical foreign tourist (myself included) would have likely only seen the last of the three if there simply for pleasure, but because I was volunteering with an organization that works with schools in rural communities, I ventured deeper.
The result? I had both relaxing and uncomfortable moments but came away with a greater appreciation and understanding of the realities of Nicaraguan life than I would have if left to my own devices.
Campo refers to the rural countryside that we might call The Country, The Sticks, The Boonies, The Middle of Nowhere… choose your favorite slang term. In Nicaragua, it’s the mountain communities where coffee grows on lush, green, rolling slopes shaded by banana and avocado trees and often shrouded by clouds. Drive the unmarked, often unnamed roads, and you’ll see horses tied to trees along the side of the road—parked while awaiting use for transportation or hauling cargo.
Traveling in Style
During our time in these mountain communities, hired trucks ferried our group from one school to the next in very standard modes of transportation: small pickup trucks with padded benches in the back, tarpaulin walls and roof to shield passengers from the elements, and a single bar to keep us from falling out the back. A rugged, high-clearance vehicle was required for navigating the rocky, muddy roads that I compare to minimally maintained Forest Service roads in the western United States that my brother and I drive to access remote hiking trails. Dirt bikes were also popular. But the most common mode of transportation not just in the campo but throughout Nicaragua, even along busy highways? Walking.
Approaching a village, you’ll see other crops growing alongside the coffee: carrots, lettuce, potatoes, squash, each grown to feed the local community. Beside the road in La Fundadora Community, we saw a harvest of carrots and lettuce being washed and bundled for transport in the muddy river, which served as a poignant reminder of why our unaccustomed foreign digestive systems needed to be fed only thoroughly cooked foods.
Nestled in this fruitful, cloud-forest landscape are rural communities where homes are best described as shacks. Sheets of mismatched scrap metal and plywood form piecemeal walls and roofs. Plastic tarps serve as window shades, doors, and even walls. Glass windows are few and far between, and screens designed to keep the bugs out are nonexistent and useless.
Let’s Talk About Water (or the Lack Thereof)
A fortunate home has running water at an outdoor sink where a person can wash their laundry instead of hauling it down to the river. Electricity is likewise at a premium, and homes and schools that have it may get it illicitly by tapping into the overhead lines.
Talk about a lack of running water, and the next thing you’ll naturally wonder about are the restroom and sanitation facilities. Call them latrines, call them outhouses, but an enclosed room up a couple steps on a concrete slab are the facilities provided for most schools in this region, and that’s considered “improved.” You can imagine that homes in the area have similar or less formal setups.
Thankfully, our rustic accommodations in La Fundadora included private restrooms with showers, sinks, and flushing toilets in each of our cabins.
The part of life in Nicaragua I had the hardest time getting used to, a rule levied even at nice hotels on the vacation end of my trip, was this: the plumbing and (if it exists) wastewater systems aren’t designed to handle toilet paper. A trashcan was stationed next to each toilet for you to dispose of your used toilet paper after you’d finished your business.
All your business.
I understand the reasons: water pressure was weak. Plumbing and sewers in cities like León may have been constructed 100, 200, maybe even 300 years ago or more. But Kristin and I laughed at the sign in our hotel room in León that politely explained that the pipes weren’t built to handle modern demands. Since when are poop and toilet paper “modern demands”?!
This rule meant that even modern, otherwise clean restrooms at nice restaurants and private homes had a persistent smell. I wouldn’t have imagined that coming home to the U.S. and flushing toilet paper would feel like a luxury. You don’t realize how much a bathroom matters to you until you think twice about going in and using it.
The Eco Albergue La Fundadora
Despite it being our most rustic accommodations of the trip, our ecolodge, the Eco Albergue La Fundadora, was actually lovely. I was most anxious about this night of the trip going in—my idea of camping involves an air-conditioned RV—but the beauty of the surrounding landscape, the quietude, and our warm and friendly hostess left me with nothing but positive feelings.
About half a mile up a steep, rocky road from the center of La Fundadora Community, the ecolodge offered five private cabins and a 10-bed dormitory. Our group of nine had the whole place to ourselves. I had a cabin on my own (all the more space to privately freak out a bit if necessary).
A central dining hall with picnic tables and freshly cooked local food was the site for two family-style lunches and one breakfast. A couple of small stray dogs wandered in and out of the dining hall (when not gated out), quietly waiting for handouts.
Stray dogs were a common sight throughout the country, and the problem goes unchecked since they reproduce with great frequency. (I saw just two dogs in a week that appeared to be kept pets, and they were with obvious foreigners.) The strays were skinny, mangy, and timid but not unfriendly, for the most part. They knew to hang around people for food scraps. The two at the ecolodge get fed regularly and are routine residents.
As a fervent dog-lover myself, seeing animals in such poor shape throughout the week was difficult.
Running water at the ecolodge in La Fundadora is collected and reused rainwater—environmentally helpful, but not the clear water we’re generally used to at home. As we were only staying one night and I hadn’t gotten sweaty or covered in bug repellent, I opted to skip a chilly shower and wait for the next lodgings.
Before bed at the ecolodge, Kristin and I convinced the rest of our group to join us outside to marvel at the stars. Being just north of the equator, in the mountains at about 3,000 ft altitude, and outside a remote, rural village with little electricity (and thus little light pollution), I saw at least 23 times more stars than I ever have on a single night. Having grown up in a rural area myself with a great view of the sky, I still found myself awestruck. For people who’ve lived most of their lives in a large city, I can only imagine how stunning this would be.
After taking a Benadryl to aid a deep sleep, and having a glass of the local rum, I donned my pajamas, drew the mosquito net around me, prayed that no errant scorpions would find their way into my empty boots overnight, and easily drifted off listening to the night.
I was one of the first people awake in the morning, a foggy but clear, sunny morning. I’m ordinarily an early riser, so I confess I felt triumphant and proud of myself for having slept well and all the way until sunrise (even with some assistance). I wandered the grounds, shot some photos, and snuggled into the hammock on my cabin’s porch to listen to the birds and watch the sun rise—my little introverted reward.
The Bustling, Working-Class City: Matagalpa
We arrived in Matagalpa on the afternoon of our third day, and after having spent a couple days in the quiet mountains, it assaulted my senses. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles with absent mufflers and prolific exhaust crowded the streets, and drivers used their horns to communicate their intentions in lieu of stoplights. As a pedestrian wanting to cross the street, you simply had to watch for a decent space between cars, step out into the street, and stare down a car with your hand outstretched in the universal “stop” gesture.
In population, the city is about the size of Kansas City, KS, with about 150,000 residents. More homes had the benefit of solid walls, running water, and electricity than in the campo, but people still spent most of their days outside to catch a hopeful breeze and escape the stifling air indoors.
You can find more middle-class workers, foreigners, missionaries, and even a handful of adventurous tourists mingling in Matagalpa. Barrios (neighborhoods) with nice homes stick out oddly amidst the rougher rawness of the rest of the city.
We spent two nights in Matagalpa, and it was the only time on the whole trip I felt uncomfortable and not entirely secure. Those two nights deserve and will get their own blog post in the coming days, so I’ll hold you in suspense until then.
The Colonial Destinations
After a night in Managua, one at the ecolodge in La Fundadora, and two nights in Matagalpa, we turned into tourists on vacation as we finished our volunteer work and closed out the trip. Our group spent its final night together at a lovely hotel in the colonial city of Granada.
Granada and León were both founded in 1524 and have a long history of serving as opposing seats for warring revolutionary parties. Today (peaceful for nearly 30 years), the two cities house beautiful cathedrals, museums, and universities. Granada, in particular, is the most tourist-friendly and -centric area of Nicaragua today, and I fully expect it to boom in popularity in the coming decades.
I got to spend a day in both of these two cities and will devote a blog post to each soon.
Granada and León are worth visiting, and a person could easily spend a week exploring each. If I’d been traveling simply on my own volition, I would have done exactly that.
But if I’d done so, skipping the days in the campo and ragged life in Matagalpa, I would have left Nicaragua with an incomplete story. Poverty is still a challenge in these colonial cities, but it’s not until you leave the boundaries of the city that you realize just how deep it goes. Seeing that myself helped me understand how a statistical average can be inaccurate on both sides of the equation.
Experiencing all three Nicaraguan life perspectives also made me more grateful for the life I have and the small things I take for granted.
Score: I’m going to set the scoring aside for this and the rest of my Nicaragua stories. The whole trip got a great score of +62, so that will cover it!