Hidden Treasures: A Country Called Nicaragua
There's a lot of beauty in the Americas, and only a portion of it is in the United States. One of the other places where it can be found is Nicaragua. The photographs that follow are meant to illustrate this.
On my first day in the country I went to Granada. The town was founded by the Spanish in 1524. Situated on Lake Nicaragua (which has access to the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River), Granada was an important transiting point for people and goods moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the years before the construction of the Panama Canal. It grew rich from trade, which in turn attracted loot-seeking pirates from England and France. The town was sacked every now and then, most infamously in 1856 by none other than an American from Tennessee (my home state). The guy's name was William Walker and he torched the place, which is why most of what visitors see today is less than 150 years old. It's also one of many reasons why Nicaraguans look warily at American involvement in their affairs.
Speaking of violence, I took this photo on the steps of the town cathedral. The cover shows the previous day's political violence in Managua, the result of a disputed election and a reminder that for all Nicaragua's beauty, the country faces great challenges.
The next day I went to hell. This is Vulcan Masaya National Park, just outside the town of Masaya. If I remember correctly, it's been spewing sulfur for centuries now, and one's sight does not even come close to penetrating to the bottom. The nearby parking area is called Plaza de Oviedo, named after a 16th-century monk who is said to have crawled down into the crater and emerged alive.
When I say that I went to hell, I'm not being entirely flippant. Some of the 16th-century Spanish folks thought this was an opening to Hell itself, and a cross now stands where a monk -- not the one the parking area is named after -- first placed a cross in an effort to drive out the demons who lived here.
By the time I returned to the town of Masaya from the volcano at mid-afternoon, I felt like I had experienced a bit of hell. The day was scorching hot, and in order to get an early start I had left for the volcano without breakfast (or even a shower). After hours of walking around the national park, my shirt was encrusted in salt and my body keenly felt its lack of nutrients. In a near delirium I returned to Masaya and, as a stop-gap measure, drank Gatorade. This would keep me going without food for another couple hours so that I could continue to use my limited time to take more pictures, including the one above. These are kids just out of school for the day, hanging out.
Also in Masaya I stumbled upon a bundle of testosterone and smiles. The dogs appear to have never witnessed a group photo before, and the woman in the background seems to have already witnessed so much in life that the group photo wasn't worth turning her head.
Managua, the country's capital just up the road from Masaya, was hotter than blazes during my visit. I suspect the heat was not the cause of death for the person whose funeral was underway when I stopped by the city's new cathedral. But it was why, before visiting the church, I had ducked into the air-conditioned Pizza Hut across the street. There I drank five glasses of Pepsi while eating a personal pan pizza and side salads. I also observed -- and was a little self-conscious of -- the fact that I was the sweatiest, smelliest person in the restaurant. Everyone else had driven here; I had walked four miles with a backpack.
Note the roof of the cathedral. The 63 domes have two purposes: to represent the 63 churches in the Managua diocese and to give added structural strength to the building in case of earthquakes, which are common in Nicaragua.
Traveling further north to the town of Matagalpa, you might be greeted by kids on bike as you search for a hotel.
Two days in a town is not enough to get a good handle on a place's characteristics and qualities. But Matagalpa was small enough that after enough back-and-forth walks down the main street, I came to feel as if I knew many of the people who worked in adjacent shops. With my abysmal grasp of Spanish -- that is, I had no grasp -- the language barrier was often as much a barrier as this glass window. It had been a while since I had been in a country where I felt so hamstrung by my lack of language ability. So many conversations could have been born if only I had taken Spanish rather than German in high school and college. But still one could figure out that people like the women in this photo were friendly, and that they worked in an optometrist shop.
On my second day in Matagalpa I took a bus 20 minutes outside the city. During the short ride, a fellow passenger had written down a list of about 30 Spanish words she thought I should learn (at my request). With this list, and having been dropped off at this abandoned tank, I would begin a two-kilometer walk through coffee fields belonging to Selva Negra, a coffee farm founded in the 1880s by German immigrants. Matagalpa is the hub of Nicaragua's coffee industry.
That's my bus in the background.
Next on my itinerary was the town of Leon. This man was sitting on the steps of the cathedral, and he reminded me more of Forrest Gump than a beggar. When I asked if I could take his photograph, he was gracious in his reply and never once expressed interest in me giving him money. After the photograph, we sat together a while. After a few seconds I had run through the limits of my Spanish. We mostly sat in silence, with him sincerely saying something every so often that I didn't understand. He was a simple man in the best sense of the word, the sort who reminds you that you wish to be a tender person.
Back in the public square in front of the church, students were celebrating the last school day of the year by signing one another's uniforms. There were tears as friends prepared to separate.
And, in the spirit of teenagehood, there was also the obnoxious guy who did the occasional drive-by on his classmates, particularly the girls, dousing them with water.
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, follow his regular photoblog, or purchase images, visit www.joelcarillet.com or www.istockphoto.com/jcarillet.