Sunday, December 9, 2012

Happy Birthday!

Just another weekend in Nicaragua, at a classmate's birthday party, complete with inflatable slide headed into the pool, another inflatable American Gladiator-style fighting ring, a professional DJ, and more food and drink tha you can shake a stick am I supposed to resist the fresh-made-on-the-spot pupusas?!  You can't, it's impossible.

No wonder people hang out at the parties their kids are invited's a blast!!


Saturday, December 8, 2012

La Purisima

At this time last year, we'd only been in Nicaragua about 5 weeks, so I was pretty much brain-dead when it came to participating in any Nica holidays.  Not so this year!  Thanks to a very good friend, the Mini-Menace and I were invited to celebrate La Purisima with her family.  Armed with a map and smartphone photos of key landmarks, we set off to meet up with Rosa in her mother's neighborhood.  Driving to a new destination in Nicaragua is always a challenge for me, since I'm clueless and the address system here is....well, really awful.  I'm sorry, but there's just no way around it.  No street names, and directions are based on landmarks that may or may not still exist? Nevertheless, Rosa knew exactly how to help the poor gringa driver, and we actually made it--in the dark!!--with no problems at all. 

We walked around the neighborhood with Rosa and her family--her sons, assorted cousins, nieces, etc.--and stopped to sing a few songs at the altars to the Virgin Mary that various families had set up in front of their houses. 

The occupants gave out all sorts of food, candies, sugar cane, chicha, nacatamales, plastic housewares...honestly, it was more than a single person could carry without a sturdy bag.  No plastic grocery bag was cutting it--mine was bursting at the seams by the end of our route. 

Whenever we'd arrive at a new house / altar, someone would call out "Quien causa tanta alegria?" and the rest of us would respond "La concepcion de Maria!".   After we sang a few songs, Jorge (Rosa's 7 year old) would shout "Una iglesia sin Maria..." and we'd all shout back "No es iglesia todavia!".  Basically, it means that a church without Mary still isn't a church.  Take that, Jesus!!! 

It was a pretty awesome night, especially because the neighborhood was small, very safe, and the kids could run around and play outside with no traffic, no random strangers on the street, etc.  And I got to sit and watch the Mini-Menace wear his butt out and almost fall asleep in the car on the way home.

Friday, September 14, 2012


Although I arrived in Nicaragua at the end of October 2011, I'm still considered a summer cycle bidder, so earlier this summer, I found myself back in the throes of bidding mayhem, trying to find at least 30 posts (from a list of over 400) that would (1) work with my departure date, (2) not run afoul of time-in-training limitations, (3) let me learn another language and get some out-of-cone experience, (4) have good schools, and (5) be reasonably safe.    It's a lot harder than it sounds.  I was convinced that I'd be sent to Saudi Arabia, where the MM would be my male guardian, it would be illegal for me to drive, so I'd be without my beloved Jeep, and I'd pretty much have to rock an abaya because my tattoos would be illegal (not because tattoos are illegal but because my particular tattoos are of images that are illegal).  My all-time dream post was on the list, but sadly, it didn't happen--but I'm actually OK with that since I would have been limited to a two-year posting.  If I end up in this country at a later point in my career, it will be for a longer posting.  See that?  Silver lining.

So, what this all boils down to is that I'll be headed back to FSI for about 7-8 months of French classes before heading off to the country whose flag is pictured above in late August 2014.  My family already knows where we're headed, but I'm going to make the rest of you figure it out for yourselves.  I'm pretty excited as it satisfied all of my requirements and was actually #6 on my list.   I'll also be reunited with a colleague from A-100, so that's just one more thing to look forward too.  C'est magnifique, non?

Happy Independence Day!!

One of the many things I love about living abroad is the fact that the Embassy observes U.S. federal holidays as well as host country holidays.  Today is the commemoration of the Battle of San Jacinto, aka Nicaragua's Independence Day.  We wrapped up our workday early yesterday in order to head to an Embassy-hosted party at Casa Grande, a gorgeous old house on the compound that used to be the Ambassador's residence a few decades ago.  There was another caballo bayo, as well as quesillos. The organizers also arranged for a dance troupe from one of the local high schools to come and present several traditional Nicaraguan dances.

The view from the back side of Casa Grande.

The hill here is surprisingly steep, and it was just too tempting to the Mini-Menace and I launched ourselves rolling down the hill.  (Don't worry, Mom--I made sure the Ambassador wasn't anywhere in sight.)  It was so steep that we actually picked up speed on the way down and were thisclose to going completely out of control.  I considered it a total victory when (1) I didn't vomit afterwards and (2) other kids--and a mom--followed our lead. 

The back side of Casa Grande

This morning, since the Embassy and MM's school are closed, I dragged convinced the MM to go horseback riding.  He was nervous, but did great---didn't complain at all and, even more shocking, admitted that our hour-long ride through the countryside near Diriomo was "maybe kind of fun".  High praise from a 10 year old boy.  He'd better watch out, though, because now that I know he "maybe kind of"enjoys it, his butt is getting back in the saddle.  Hopefully, next time, he might actually LOOK like he's enjoying himself:

After the past week--which included an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, tsunami warnings, and the heartbreaking news from Libya,  this was exactly what I needed.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

A nice way to end the week...

I'm not really sure how this happened, but about a month ago, I was given the responsibility of being the Ambassador's control officer for a visit she would be making to Leon, a city about 90 minutes from Managua.   I say that I'm not sure how it happened, because I'm a consular-coned officer in a consular assignment, which means I spend most of my day interviewing Nicaraguans who are applying for non-immigrant visas and Americans who are renewing passports, applying for a Consular Report of Birth Abroad, jail visits, etc.  Coming into this job, I really did not expect to interact with the Ambassador any more than a "Good morning / afternoon, Madame Ambassador" if I saw her somewhere on the embassy compound.  I really thought that the folks in Political had a lock on her time.  Wrong!!!  Ambassador Powers is really committed to giving entry-level officers (ELOs) opportunities to develop their careers and skills outside their cone, and it seems that includes all ELOs, not just the folks in POL.  So, when I was given the task of pretty much setting up her schedule for the day, I was a little freaked out.  I figured I'd be in for a long, stressful day, and while I was right in some respects (long day), it wasn't nearly as stressful as I had expected, and I learned a lot about the pre-planning and choreography that goes into getting an Ambassador from one place to the next while staying on schedule and being mindful of security.  It's really a weird sensation to be part of an entourage, and I can't imagine getting used to it.

I'm also beyond impressed with the Ambassador's energy and her obvious desire to experience Nicaragua and get to know the Nicaraguan people, while at the same time reaching out to the American citizen community here.  The day started early and was pretty much choreographed down to the minute.  We visited the headquarters of the American Nicaraguan Foundation, which works with donors to provide educational, medicinal, and food supplies to some of the neediest communities in Nicaragua.  We also visited a school that ANF supports--and this was BY FAR the highlight of the day.  The kids had a program planned that included two traditional dances, and the presentation of some Nica handicrafts and flowers.

El Viejo and La Vieja: a traditional dance where old man chases his old wife around trying to get some sugar.  Another explanation is that he's trying to get sugar from the ladies in the audience and his wife starts chasing him around.  Pretty funny when performed by 5 year olds.
And by sugar, I don't mean sugar.

One of the school administrators asked if the Ambassador would have her picture taken with some of the children--and the whole school gathered around.  It was definitely one of Lifetime network moments--I'm a pretty crabby old hag, really, and I thought I would cry from the sheer cuteness of it all:

Then it was off to lunch--but this was still a working event, in a way.  The Ambassador likes to get to know the Peace Corps Volunteers who are in Nicaragua, so whenever she does visits like this, she invites the PCVs in the area to lunch, her treat.  We had lunch with five young women with pretty amazing and diverse educational backgrounds, personal histories, etc., and learned a lot about what they are doing, health, small business, agriculture, etc.  After lunch, it was off to a Town Hall meeting for American citizens in the Leon area, followed by a visit to the home of family hosting / housing one of the PCVs from lunch.  It was really a treat to see the Ambassador visiting an average Nicaraguan in her own home, and being completely at ease, as well as putting the host at ease.  Then we went to visit one of the local organizations that the PCV works with, where, among other things, girls are learning to make crafts from recycled garbage to sell as souvenirs.  Once again, I got to see the Ambassador engaged with a group of young girls who were obviously nervous, but excited to be meeting the Ambassador and telling her about their projects.  I also learned--as the Ambassador told this group of girls while a group picture was being taken--that the secret to looking good in a picture is to say "diez y seiz, treinte y tres".   According to the Ambassador, it's what Colombia beauty pageant contestants say during photo shoots--and it was the kind of story that made these girls giggle and smile, and showed them (and me) that the Ambassador is a regular person who can tell funny stories and make you laugh.

We finally made it back to Managua in the evening--thank god the Mini-Menace had been invited to play with a friend and go to a party after school, so even though I worked later than usual, I still beat him home.  Now I'm planning on enjoying the three-day Labor Day weekend and rubbing it in to the Mini-Menace that he still has school on Monday.  BWAH HA HA HA!!

Friday, August 10, 2012

La Fiesta de Santo Domingo

The 30 second summary of my summer:  the Mini-Menace spent the summer in the US, the first month with his father and paternal grandparents, the second month with my family, and then a few days in DC to visit his buddies, winging in back to Managua just in time for the start of 5th grade.  He had a blast: road trip with Grandpa, visits to Amish country, baseball games, water parks, and generally all the things a 10 yr old boy loves.  Me, I had a busy, but surprisingly sedate summer:  working crazy hours at the Embassy on the 4th of July event--where I was the control officer for the Nicaraguan VP--, organizing a Town Hall in Managua a few days later, accompanying the Ambassador to a few meetings, traveling with her to Bluefields for another Town Hall, and generally keeping myself busy visiting Americans in jail.  I did manage to go horseback riding a few times: about 30 minutes away, there's a farm owned by some expats, and for $50 / month, you can show up whenever you want, as often as you want, and go riding for as long as you want.  Finally, my 12 year old self's dream has come true: it's like owning a horse without having to do all the work.

Now the Mini-Menace is back, 5th grade is underway, and today, we got to experience one of the biggest events in the country: the feast of Santo Domingo de Guzman.  The celebrations started on August 1st, while we were still in the US, but we managed to make it back in time for the closing celebration on the 10th.  One of my co-workers invited us to watch the parade from a cousin's house that is right on the parade route.  We'd be behind the fence, not crushed by the crowd, and we could sit, eat, dance, and generally get our party on, Nica-style.

The parade--in which a roughly 6 inch statue of the saint is taken from one side of Managua back to his home church on our side of town--is akin to Mardi Gras, complete with bands, dancers, panhandlers, drag queens, and the like.  People set up tables and chairs in their yards, and wait for the saint to pass by.  There are people who walk the procession in gratitude or in supplication to the saint, asking for his intercession on their behalf, or giving thanks for prayers answered.  Many people carry or wear their own altars and make their own walk ahead of the "official" saint's procession.

Other people coat themselves in used motor oil to darken their skin; there are different theories as to what they represent: diablitos, or little devils; the descendants of African slaves; or the indigenous Nicaraguans that populated the area when the saint was first found, who made a living by making charcoal (or something like that), hence the dark skin.

There were also quite a few people dressed as Indians; they walked the route, usually following a band.  Houses along the route would pay the band and dancers--money or food--to perform for a little bit at their house.  Our hosts did just that, so we were able to enjoy some great Nica music and dancing.

We watched the crowd, all dancing, drinking, partying and carrying on.  These pictures really don't accurately capture the size of the crowd.  Suffice it to say that I was very glad to be behind a fence, with a little more room to breathe.

Finally, Santo Domingo made his appearance, surrounded by flowers and carried on a massive wooden platform carried by what seemed like a sea of celebrants:

Our hosts also put on a traditional Nica spread, called caballo bayo.  It's like a buffet of traditional Nica meats, cheeses, salads, sauces, beans, and desserts.  It was insanely delicious.

Now, I'm going to be in a food-induced coma on the couch for the rest of the day. Good times!!!!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Street Legal

Six months after I arrived, and 4 months after the car arrived, we're finally street legal! 

I've been driving for 4 months, and have been pulled over by the transit police about 10 times, which is really on the low end, compared to some of the stories I've heard.  Without diplomatic plates, the transit police will stand on the side of the road, wave you down, and proceed to tell you what infraction you've just allegedly committed.  Amazingly enough, these infractions can be taken care of with an on-the-spot fine paid directly to the officer.  How convenient.  Ahem.  Right.  Luckily, with a diplomatic carnet and a letter from the embassy that explains why you're driving without Nica plates or registration, the police sigh and send you on your way.  It doesn't stop you from getting pulled over in the first place, though, and having to go through the whole rigamarole.  In fact, when my parents were visiting, they got to experience the transit police not once, but twice!  Normally, if I got pulled over with my parents in the car, I'd been in for a ticket and a parental lecture for driving like a jackass.  This was a breeze, though, and I think my dad secretly got a kick out of being able to vicariously play the diplomatic status card and drive off.  Pretty funny after all the times I've heard him complain about diplomatic drivers in DC.  Last weekend, I ran in to someone in GSO who told me that my plates had arrived and that I should swing by to pick them up on Monday.  Naturally, on my way to work Monday morning, I got pulled over one last time, about a block from the embassy.   No sweat...and as a sweet example of how we look out for each other here, there were two friends driving behind me, one from MILGRP and one from RSO; one pulled up alongside and asked if everything was OK, and the other texted the same thing 2 seconds later.  

In other local drama, we've finally figured out why the dog would occasionally lose her shit in the yard at night.  She doesn't pay attention to the guards, unless they're eating, in which case she's their new best friend, the dog next door doesn't bother her, and despite being on a fairly busy road, we really don't hear a lot of street noise.  I was secretly hoping an iguana or monkey had taken up residence in my yard, but no, we couldn't get anything that pleasant.   Instead, we got a zorro.  In other words, a possum.  And not just any possum, but a big, fat, ugly as sin, and pregnant possum.  Technically, a post-partum possum...because yes, that faint squeaking noise wasn't coming from Momma P, but from the 8 million or so of these things that she'd just dropped:

Sorry, Gollum, we don't have your Precious.

Imagine, if you will, me creeping about my back yard about 8:30 at night, in the dark, in my pajamas, with a flashlight, broom, and dustpan, trying to collect the babies and keep Rosa (the dog) from killing Momma P.  They really do play dead, which doesn't say much for Rosa's hunting instincts.  Momma P dropped, closed her eyes, and even make that dead, rictus-smile, complete with lolling tongue.  Rosa, who at one point had the zorro in her mouth, dropped it, gave a quizzical look, and trotted off.  Momma P made a quick escape to the neighbors yard, sans the mini-zorros.   All in all, we found 7, and gave them to the guard who, I'm sure, had been wondering what the hell I was doing.  I am wilfully ignorant of what happened afterwards; don't ask, don't tell, indeed!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Selva Negra

Since my parents had survived ziplining, climbing up 177 stairs to peer into a sulfur-spouting volcanic crater, and spending a sweltering night in non-airconditioned cabin with a compost toilet, I decided to cut them some slack and take them to more hospitable environs.  Off we went to Selva Negra, a nearly self-sustaining coffee finca, organic farm, and eco-lodge a few hours north of Managua, in Matagalpa.  Matagalpa is at a higher elevation and is significantly cooler than anywhere else we'd been.  Someone had recommended that we bring sweaters and, I admit, I scoffed.  You have to understand, the guards at my house put on big puffy winter coats and ski caps if the night temperature approaches 70--so when a sweater was recommended, I wasn't buying it.


It was probably around 70 when we arrive, at noon.  Unheard of!!!  At night, I'd say that the temperature hovered in the low 60s and yes, I was glad that I'd brought a lightweight sweatshirt with me.

Selva Negra means "Black Forest" and the owners are descendants of German immigrants who settled in the area.  There are a variety of lodging options to choose from; we went for a small brick cabin that had 2 bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom, and a small porch area with two rocking chairs.

The finca has its own restaurant, and virtually all of the food served in the restaurant is grown or (if animal) raised onsite.  They even make their own cheese, and let me tell you, after going 6 months without Camembert, I could have cried with joy when I saw that wheel of cheese.   This was the off-season, though, so we didn't see any coffee production in action, but we took a tour and drove all over the finca, saw the fields, saw the processing area / equipment, and learned a lot about coffee production.  Apparently, the farm sells most of its beans to larger coffee producers, and keeps a small amount for itself, for the restaurant, etc. Although our guide did tell me that you can buy Selva Negra coffee in Whole Foods, but I have no idea if that's still true.  I will say, though, that this was some of the best coffee I've ever had; good enough for me to drink black, and I'm the kind of gal that likes a little coffee with her milk. 

The finca really takes the self-sustaining bit seriously; plant matter that is left after the beans are harvested and de-husked is used to feed the worms in the worm farm, and after the worms eat and the material passes through, the end product is used to fertilize the fields where the coffee, fruits, vegetables, etc. are grown.  By the way, am I the only one who thinks its funny to describe worm shit as an "end product"?  

Selva Negra is also very family-friendly; there were swingsets, rope swings hanging from trees, a tetherball pole, and a small playground scattered throughout the farm.   I'm also not too ashamed to admit that I whipped the Mini-Menace at tetherball.  So what if I have a significant height advantage. 

There is also a beautiful stone chapel on the property, with simple benches and beautiful stained-glass windows.  

We met the owners' son-in-law at breakfast and he told us that the chapel had been built for their wedding.

The restaurant is set on the side of a small (and not deep) lagoon; we ate dinner and watched a guy balance himself in a small wooden boat and use a pitchfork to to pull something akin to seaweed out of the bottom of the lake.  

Nice view!!  I'm talking about the lake, of course.

And have I mentioned the howler monkeys?  There are two bands of howler monkeys that live in the forest around our cabin, but alas, there was no repeat of the Monkey-in-My-Lap.  Howler monkeys are loud, and sound pretty scary; it was like a really deep, baritone bark.  No pictures, unfortunately, but my dad and I enjoyed our little hike; there are some great trails on the property.

Next time, I might plan ahead and take advantage of the stables and go  horseback riding instead.  And eat my body weight in Camembert, of course.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roughing It

The most popular destination in Nicaragua is, I think, the beach.  Any beach, in fact.  San Juan del Sur is especially popular with the surfing community.  I've heard that it's overrated, though, and depending on where you are, the beach is rocky, and full of litter.  Friends who came to visit spent one day there before blowing town and heading to Corn Island instead.  Other friends felt like they were in San Diego or some other US surf town...full of English-speaking surfer dudes (or as my friend Stefano likes to call them, "dreadlocks").  I suppose it all comes down to what you can put up with....if you want to have a really low-budget weekend at a hostel, you can't expect too much.  Other friends rented a nice house and loved it.

At any rate, I knew I wanted to take the Parental Menaces to the beach while they were here.   I hadn't been to the beach yet, but the Mini Menace had and loved it.  My family are not really beach-going people--I think the last time I was at the beach was 2nd grade when we visited relatives in Florida--but since this vacation was all about new experiences, I thought I'd drag them along  Hell, after ziplining, I figured they'd be pretty happy to sit around and relax.  I'd heard great things about Los Cardones, an eco-friendly surf lodge about 90 minutes from Managua, so off we went....

Los Cardones is definitely one of the most environmentally-conscious places I've seen in a country that has a terrible problem with litter.  Honestly, there is trash EVERYWHERE and people think nothing of just throwing garbage out the bus window, etc.  It's a shame, because the county has amazing natural resources and stunning beauty. So I thought we'd support a business that is trying to minimize it's negative impact on the environment.  No electricity, solar power only, use well water, compost toilets, and the buildings use local materials and methods, and are designed to blend in to the surrounding vegetation.  We stayed in a gorgeous wooden lodge on stilts, with a thatched roof, a spacious deck, bunk beds, and hammocks.  Meals and drinks are included, and one thing that I really liked was that dinner--for the whole lodge--was served at the same time.  Guests placed their orders earlier in the day, and at 7:00, we all showed up, had a few drinks, and sat down for dinner was a great opportunity to meet the other guests.  They also had several shelves of books, games, a basketball hope and--to the Mini-Menace's delight--a ping-pong table.   We pretty much sat around, ate, drank, walked on the beach, went swimming, napped in hammocks, and played a lot of ping-pong.

You are roughing it, though, so at night, there are no fans, no electricity, just you, the sound of the waves, and if you're lucky, a breeze to cool things off.  My parents were real troopers, though, and had a great attitude, despite the heat.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Close Encounters

So, on Day 2 of my parents' vacation, we again availed ourselves of the services of a guide and driver, mainly because I was too damn lazy to drive and explain what we were seeing. We had another busy day, hitting a pottery workshop:

My parents also deserve a TON of credit for letting me con them into ziplining.

They deserve even more credit for not killing me for posting VIDEO of them ziplining.

Although truth be told, my mom sounds like she's almost sort-of kinda enjoying this....or maybe that's just because this was the last line (of about 8 to 10...I stopped counting after I the upside-down Spiderman thing. I was pretty much just thankful to be alive.) Anyhow, they definitely cemented their hold on the title of Coolest Parents of All Time.

We also hit one of the Mini-Menace's favorite sightseeing activities, sailing around the small islands (Las Isletas) in Lake Nicaragua. This time, we got up close and personal with Lucy the Monkey. She noticed that we had cashews and fresh watermelon and decided to come maker herself at home.

Poor Mom didn't think this was nearly as entertaining as the rest of us, who were giggling away as she was fervently hoping that the cashews and watermelon didn't cause Lucy any sort of gastric distress.

It was worth it, though, because Ms. Lucy kindly obliged me with a nice photo before abandoning ship and heading back to Monkey Island:

Next up: forcing my parents to rough it at a eco-friendly surf lodge and then realizing that yes, there ARE places in Nicaragua where you need a light sweatshirt (aka Selva Negra).   Also, if I can figure out how to edit the video to a more manageable length, I'll post the video of Lucy getting cozy in my lap.