Sunday, August 28, 2016

Biblioteca Puedo Leer's anniversary

This is Mike...
Ever wonder what it would be like to retire early and change the world? We are so fortunate to have spoken with countless expats who have done just that, changed the world. Yeah, many of them will never be household names but for the local communities whom they help, they will never be forgotten. We had the pleasure of being invited to Biblioteca Puedo Leer's anniversary. Translated, the name means, "I can read library" and for many of the kids, they can now read thanks to this library's books and tutors. Imagine a life where access to knowledge is not so readily available? It is hard for most of us to fathom since we can Google anything at a moments notice.
   For many, the happy smiles and sense of community that libraries offer are things of the past but for these kiddos it is today's reality, thanks to the wonderful giving from those who wish to remain anonymous. The founders who started this mini but stuffed library, all retired early. Each of these early retirees found better callings in life than saving a little more money at the expense of another precious year lost. Their stories are beautiful, simple and inspiring. Take time to visit with some expats on your next vacation. They are often filled with knowledge and experiences that can greatly enhance your understanding of a local community.

The girls danced in traditional dress for the crowds

The kids saying thanks.

Some of the founders enjoying time with those who they help.

Potato sack race.

Parents around the world want the best for their kids.

Colcibolca jockey club, just outside Granada

This is Mike...
We joined the Colcibolca jockey club as a way to get out of the town and into green space. Country clubs are pretty much the same world over, pay a membership and you can enjoy privacy and have exclusive amenities. We are, in general, not country club folks but for the quiet, green open spaces and nice trees for Zoe to climb we can make exceptions. Though, literally walking distance from Granada, it feels like a million miles away. We all forgot how much we missed the sweet scent of fresh cut grass until we went out there a few days ago. Granada is wonderful, walkable, and convenient but the lack of open natural spaces is wearing on us all. For most, green space is so soothing and for kids I believe nourishing. It is nice the jockey club is so close for us car-less people that we can get there in a walk. It would be nicer still, if bureaucrats recognized all communities need nature, and not just those with money. 
Standing by an historic train.

In the background is the club's horse racing track and polo field.

Less than 10 people were there while we were there.

Jumping for joy.

Back flips are now, all the rage.

Getting a better view of the world sometimes means changing perspective.

Night of myths and legends

This is Mike...
Oddly enough, it was just last week when I thought Granada would be taking a breather from the constant partying and relax for a while. Though the weekdays were tranquil and one could actually get an uninterrupted night of sleep, the celebrating continues. The energy of this town is reminiscent of Gloria Esteban's, hit song, "Rhythm is going to get you, tonight." Stay in Granada long enough and you will quickly realize, the rhythm will get you too.
   Last night's fiesta was noche de mitos y leyendas (night of myths and legends). The parade was a visual feast for the eyes, with ornate costumes and happy participants celebrating local myths and legends, as this clip shows . For many of the youngsters, the parade offers a way to piece together the scary stories that grandma and grandpa told them, after dinner, while swaying on their hammocks. These myths and legends go way back, and not just here. In most of Mexico and Central America myths and legends are tools elders use to help keep their unique cultures alive.
   After a restful week, I have to say it was nice to see people gathering, music blaring, and yes even those annoying bottle rockets again. Living in a UNESCO world heritage city has it's obvious benefits of beautiful buildings, location, and charm. It is the unexpected, though, which overcome the senses here. The clip clop of the horses trotting down the streets, the tolling of church bells in the distance, and the timelessness of the human condition. The truest extent of Granada's beauty is how one interacts with her flaws and her perfections and yet still finds time to dance with her, while the music plays and plays.

Parque Central, before all the crowds came for myths and legends.

Bands kept the juices flowing until the parade.

Beautiful main cathedral at night.

Vendors selling items for the night's parade.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hostal la Mexicana's artisanal Greek yogurt

This is Mike...
As many of the longer term blog followers probably already know, I seldom praise eating establishments for doing their jobs. In fact, over the last 18 months I recommended only one other restaurant. I prefer to speak of regional areas of interest rather than any individual eatery.
   About a week, ago a great friend of ours recommended a place that makes artisanal handcrafted yogurts, in Granada. We just so happen to love all-natural products and yogurts especially. My daughters and I went down to Hostal la Mexicana, and purchased two one kilo containers of their famous Greek yogurt. The girls and I went home, popped open a container, scooped out individual portions and drizzled honey on top. We were immediately transported to a rich and creamy dairy heaven and knew we stumbled upon perfection. When you eat something that puts a smile on your face and raises you eyebrows, you know it's good. I personally ate 3/4 of a kilo of plain flavored Greek yogurt within hours of opening that container.
   The owner, Ilias Georgiou, is from the province of Macedonia, in northern Greece. He uses the old world techniques to enhance the traditional flavors of his yogurt. The finished product is only as good as the ingredients though. Which is why Ilias goes out of his way to ensure the best ingredients for each of his products. Thus, buying his all natural yogurt products,  directly translates into helping the local dairy farmers in central Nicaragua. Which in turn encourages those farmers to use better and more sustainable methods to ensure quality. So, each container of yogurt one consumes not only stimulates good intestinal flora but also encourages better farming practices, its a win win situation.
   The Hostal la Mexicana is on Calle Xalteva a half block toward the lake on the opposite side of the street. We happily recommend the dairy treats these wonderful folks have to offer.               

Ilias Georgiou showing some of his magnificent products
An unassuming exterior for such an amazing culinary treasure.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carnival, Granada's finale that capped the partying

This is Mike...
   Well we survived two and a half weeks of amazing partying, pounding music and constant bottle rockets. The fiestas started with the running of the bulls and ended with Carnival in Granada. At one point Elise and I thought we would have made great psychological experiments on what exhaustion does to a marriage. We hit that marital "Line in the sand" and repeatedly got snappy with one another over nothing. We sometimes deliriously laughed while laying on the couch with our palms on our foreheads while at the same time bickering over more nonsense. The bottle rockets were the worst for us as they went off at 2am, 430am at any A.M. you can imagine for 17 long days. As it so happens, we live very close to the Inglesia Xalteva which is bottle rocket "Grand Central" for Granada.
   We survived the mass gatherings without getting robbed which is a wonderful accomplishment in this day and age. I did get viciously assaulted though, which was surprising. While I was sitting on the park wall, waiting for the Carnival to happen, I felt a sharp pain to my right chest. I looked over to discover the assailant. He was strong, had brown hair, and kicked me hard once his mom detached him from breastfeeding. Don't get me wrong I'd be upset too, after getting the milk faucet turned off, but I don't ever recall kicking anybody when I was a year old. The boy's mom was so embarrassed by her 26 inch tall ninja warrior that I actually felt bad for her. I smoothed it over by joking with her about how I finally got beat up and it was by a toddler. We laughed and all was good. Jokes aside, I really like how breastfeeding is 100% fully accepted here. No breastfeeding rooms required here just a lactating mom, a hungry child and a comfortable place to relax, just as nature intended it. 
   We learned a lot from our earlier experiences at the Hipica, that a family with kids don't mix with adult partiers in tight spaces. For Carnival we decided to hang out in the women and children's section of the parade route. The biggest threat in our section was someone overdosing on cotton candy or being kicked by a disgruntled breast feeder. The parade eventually began an amazing 4 and a half hours after it was supposed to start. My kids were so over the long wait that they actually went home before the parade even began. I, however, took one for the team and stuck it out, both to witness Carnival and to see if the strobe lights would enhance my appreciation for my otherwise poor tasting beer. Carnival was safe and energetic near the Xalteva church. I hear it was a completely different experience on the Calzada with all of the adult revelers sloshing in deliciously cheap rum drinks. I, however, was happy to be right around the corner from my soft bed, finally without bottle rockets, and the most beautiful sound of all, silence.    

Each school or neighborhood had their own costumes.

Waiting for the parade.

Guess which ones are my kids?

Had to take a picture of one of the more experienced revelers in the crowd.

Here they come, party train.

Party floats.

Neon colors filled the route.

Beautiful outfits marched by for hours.

The music and dance filled the air.

Dancing and swaying to drumbeats.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Questions from a young lady in England

This is Mike...
Most times, I allow a reader's questions to become part of an entry so that the reader may see the answers without making it obvious to others. Well, today I will break tradition and respond directly to a 12 year old girl from Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Something about how she wrote with such honesty and wonderment caught my attention. She wrote of her days in England and how she looks at travel blogs untold hours for inspiration. Well, one day, I can assure you that you too will see the world, if that is your desire. The older I get, the more truth I see in sayings like, "Energy flows where attention goes."
   As for what sort of tea I enjoy. Well, funny you should ask, we very much enjoy a tea made from dried hibiscus blossoms. . Not tea in the purest sense, since it comes from steeping of flowers and not leaves, but tea of grand flavor none-the-less. We prefer the tea chilled and with a touch of sugar to lessen its tartness. Believe it as you may, we pour the hibiscus tea over ice cubes here. It is quite refreshing on a hot day to drink such a beverage.  Most people in the New World drink coffee rather than tea, but I assure you, it is still remarkably easy to find a gorgeous spot of Indian tea almost anywhere.
   As for whether I have a proper office. Well, I added some pictures below to help demonstrate, in one sense, my office is quite proper indeed. I have a writing surface, laptop, and a wonderful place for inspiration. On the other hand, my office, if it is to be called such, is loud and at the base of the staircase, in the middle of all manner of action. My children, like you for your parents, make this incredibly beautiful music, it is called laughter. The days of youthful gaiety are short and I hope you find great reason to laugh with your parents. Be boisterous, be gleeful but most importantly be you. There are millions upon millions of other people but only one young lady like you.
   As for whether you are feckless and dreaming your life away. Most certainly you are not! You will probably not like to hear this but you are still young, and that is a spectacular gift. You will have many opportunities to succeed and fail. If I may, I wish to impress upon you that failing is never a bad thing so long as you learn from the experiences, they shall make you stronger. Today's world moves faster than mine did at your age but most of life's challenges are the fairly similar. Most importantly, you still need to make a path that is agreeable with you. Finally, age is no guarantee of maturity or intelligence. You will find that one day, you will know more than an elder but respect them the same, there's always an opportunity to learn.
   As for why and how we chose the trip. Well that is a wonderful story, indeed. Of course people see the blog and pictures but what they don't see or feel is how we got here. We had many fears upon starting this journey and some days we still do. But fear in of itself is not enough reason to quit. Often our fears are silly and usually based on not knowing what tomorrow will bring. In truth, does anybody know what tomorrow will bring? I have two daughters and one is almost your age, she is curious about how the world works as well. I like traveling with my family because I learn more about myself, with them, than I could ever learn alone.
    My wife approached me one day, nearly two years ago and asked, "If you could do anything in the world what would it be?" I thought about it and came up with silly responses, she scoffed at my answers and asked more firmly, "What have you always wanted to do?" I replied with seriousness, "I always wanted to drive to Argentina." Remarkably she said, "We'll look into it." We bought a few books, waited a few weeks and afterwards she said, "Let's drive to Central America. I cannot commit to South America yet, but we have always wanted to go, so let's do it while we still can." I was so amazed that we could go and live a dream, together. You see, when I first met my wife 13 years ago and went to her house for the first time I noticed she had a Central and South America guide book in her cabinet. Though I did not know her well at the time, we clicked and had a nice conversation about her book. As it turned out, she had a dream to go to Latin America as well. Life is strange, you just never know what's going to happen.
   For me, I had postponed my dream for 25 years, because I had fears of cartels, fears of falling behind financially, fears of the unknown. For 25 years, I waited behind excuses, and it all affected me deeper than I could have imagined. I only noticed how good I was at saying no, after I started saying yes for a change. You see, my wife and two daughters gave me the courage to live a dream. My family was no longer an excuse from which I would hide behind, they were the reason for us to start traveling, and our lives became fun again. My wife gave me a most precious gift, that of living this life with her. I am a lucky father and lucky husband and shall not ever forget that.
   As for you finding England boring.  I have a wonderful friend from Caracas, Venezuela who now lives in Texas. When she was a young girl her family decided to move to England for work and to learn English as well. She spoke of how she and her sister would jokingly say, "Blah, Blah, Blah" to each other as that's what the new language of English sounded like to their young ears. Today, she looks back on England with immense fondness and appreciates how special and different it was from her native Venezuela. The food, weather, mannerism, everything so different. By the time she left your delightful country she adored it and now speaks two languages perfectly because of it. Alas, maybe it is not the place but a change of perspective that matters most. Try to see what is good about England, I am sure you will discover it is breathtaking. You will have plenty of time to journey afar but for now your journey needs to be within.       
   I hope you see that life can be confusing at times but eventually you discover what's right. One day in the distant future, you might look though a window and realize the way you thought when you were 12 may have been correct all along. In the meantime though, find time to play, time to dream, time to laugh, incredibly enough it always seems to work out in the end. Stay focused on your studies and garner as much knowledge as you can. Above all, we sincerely hope your beautiful dreams, postponed or not, one day come true! 

We enjoy Smoothies (milkshakes) with fresh fruit almost everyday.

After steeping the flowers in a pot we strain the hibiscus, leaving behind the tea.

My "office" is spartan but is sufficient.

Quite a nice view from the "office".


An honest day's work for an honest day's pay

This is Mike...
Elise and I are always amazed at how hard people physically work, here in Nicaragua. Setting aside the issues of why one system is different than another for a moment, these people truly work incredibly hard. We constantly see job sites where heavy machinery should be, only to be worked with shovels and backs. The heat alone is a huge impediment for most to be working in such demanding jobs. However, these people work hard because they have to. Sadly, there is a near endless supply of cheap labor willing to work in the event anybody complains. Thus, with an abundant supply of workers, wages stay depressed and with Nicaragua's baby boom there is little reason to believe things will change any time soon. Still, the girls and I are so impressed with how hard people work in order to make a living. We are constantly humbled.

These 3 men are expected to repave, by shovel and wheel barrel, 100 meters of street a day with heavy wet asphalt. The only machinery used at this job site was the dump truck that dropped the wet asphalt on the road.

These men just start working and finish when the asphalt is done.

It was over 90F degrees (32C degrees) and humid and these guys just worked and worked.

One does not have to go far, in Nicaragua, to see self employed people doing their thing. On the street in front of our own home we see industrious people working all the time, trying to make ends meat. Some of our neighbors turn their homes into eateries during certain hours of the day, to make some additional income. Others provide car washes and still others carry their business door to door. A couple days ago I had to get a two knives sharpened. As it so happened a man set up his sharpening station right across from our house. He sharpened two of our kitchen knives, to razor sharpness, for 30 Cordobas (about a dollar). The busy kitchens next door to our house had their knives and cleavers sharpened by the same man. This gives meaning to the phrases buying local and supporting local businesses. There are countless examples of people just doing it, people who were handed lemons and in-turn making lemonade. Believe it or not, the images of people working in the neighborhoods and the streets humming with life was what we most missed when we went back to the states last year. Nine months ago, shortly after arriving back in the US, I wrote a blog entry about how I missed the human interactions and how modern life has become ever more insular. . Quirks and all, this place has more positives than negatives and we often remark how Nicaragua feels perfectly imperfect.

The knife sharpener guy is much nicer than the picture would suggest.

Our favorite kitchen knife made much better after sharpening.

Two separate neighbors have their house doors open selling different breakfast items.

Our produce man selling goods to our neighbor. This is the same neighbor our monkey climbed into her house and jumped on her couch while she and her two teenage daughters were watching soap operas. She still jokes about her screams as she and her daughters jumped up from the couch after seeing the monkey, she is such a nice lady to have as a neighbor.   

Our produce man comes loaded with produce and even fresh eggs in the back crate. His prices are identical to those of the local supermarket.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nicaragua's season of plenty

This is Mike...
One of the cooler aspects about visiting a different country is tasting produce that you may not have otherwise eaten. In Central America there is a very pronounced dry season from March through May. The dry season impacts grocery prices and even effects livestock with many succumbing to malnutrition and dehydration. In the more developed world we have irrigation to offset the real costs of drought. In Nicaragua, though, only the wealthier can afford to irrigate crops, leaving the majority to wander for grasses and water for their herds. The dry season is tough on all who live close to the land.
   As the wet season begins in mid-May the temperatures drop and with the rains comes an abundance of fruits and vegetables a couple months later. Mangoes were the first to ripen and by mid-June the city was awash with really cheap and super sweet mangoes. During peak mango season, prices dropped as low as 10 Cordobas (30 cents U.S) per dozen mangoes. However, it is worth mentioning that the mango season hit like a flood and was over in a flash. Though we are still able to get mangoes, they are not always available and no longer at those low prices. We had no idea that the mango season, would be for the most part done in about 5 weeks. The mangoes fed many while they were here. The monkeys and squirrels ruined many mangoes by taking a bite or two, then dropping the mangoes to fall where they may. Then the tapir, deer, cattle, and so on ate their fill of the fruit. As the mangoes filled the bellies of those big and small, some of the fruit started to ferment in the sun. As the mangoes laid seemingly abandoned to rot, then the butterflies arrived en-mass to show just how beautiful mango season can be. Clouds of every color one can dream, clouds of the most whimsical fluttering butterflies were all over the discarded mangoes. There it was, the life cycle of the mango ended in a spectacle of colorful butterflies drinking the juices with their tiny straw-like proboscis.
   As of mid-August, we are now in the peak of Mamon Chino or Rambutan season Given our experience with the short lived mango season we are loading up with a hundred Mamon Chinos at a time, while supplies last. They are selling for 1 Corboba each right now, which works out to be $3.32 for one hundred delicious fruit. For those of you lucky enough to be vacationing somewhere during the "Season" of a fruit, indulge in the goodness while it lasts. Nothing beats the sweetness of a naturally ripened fruit, eaten as it was intended, eaten during the season.

I am holding a rambutan to demonstrate their size. In the background are bananas, avocados, tomatoes and passion fruit.

A bountiful harvest by any measure.

Inside the rambutan is a sweet juicy white flesh around a single seed (bottom) which could be a choking hazard for toddlers.

We miss the peak of mango season and the abundant fruits.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back to school, Granada style

This is Mike...
Today was the girls first day back to school. Both of our girls were nervous and excited, which was quite a sight to see while they were fussing over their hair and shoes. They, like most kids around the world, were filled with the anticipation that only the first day of school can provide. Just before we stepped out of the house, to go to school, Elise saw a stray horse tear open a trash bag along the side of the road. The horse smelled the aroma mangoes in the bag and did whatever it could to get to them before another horse showed up and stole the goods. Elise laughed and said, "You don't see that everyday." as she ran into our house to get a fresh celery stalk for the horse. Moments later Elise approached the horse to give it celery and our girls watched with nervous excitement, the horse took a sniff of what she had to offer but decide the mangoes were more his speed. Elise came back chuckling about how her celery wasn't good enough and our kids laughed. Every first day has it's thrills and dramas but not many like this with a stray horse eating mangoes from our neighbors trash. As parents, we hope these images and unique experiences stay with our kids and help shape them for years to come.

A skinny stray horse hit the jackpot with mangoes in our neighbors trash.

Two excited kiddos on the way to their first day of school.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Granada's hipica no es tipica

This is Mike...
Hipicas, or horse parades, are common place in much of Latin America. In Nicaragua they take their hipicas seriously, but none so seriously as la hipica de Granada. Usually when driving the countryside in Nicaragua one sees skinny, sickly, worked to the bone horses along the roadsides. It is certainly refreshing to see such high dollar and well kept horses at the hipica. Big money people and associations attend the hipica to showcase their hobbies and interests.
   Okay, now for an ordinary person's experience of the hipica. We were invited to a house party along the hipica route on Calle Corrales about a half mile from the end of the parade route. The couple who live in the house gave an open invitation to expats in Granada to attend. We, of course, would not turn down food and drink so we graciously accepted the invite. The home was situated about 4 feet above the street giving us ideal views of the horses, floats, and revelers. The parade started off slowly and had a trickling of riders pass through. Then, the gridlock happened when a horde of humanity and gorgeous horses piled through at the same time. There was no leadership in the parade just anything goes whenever it goes.
    The gridlock wouldn't normally be an issue but many of the horse riders were drinking heavily and the crowds were loud and spooking out the horses. We felt the parade could easily turn for the worse if a horse decided to bolt and trample the crowd. Luckily, for us, we were high enough above the mayhem not to be bothered. The gridlock did subside after a while and the floats started to go by. The floats had Tona girls on them, which is Nicaragua's answer to the Budweiser girls back in the U.S. After the floats went by we decided to call it a night before it got too crazy on the streets for our young family.
   As we walked in the direction of our house the real thick gridlock happened. People were drinking, the music thumping and the crowd merged into one swaying mass of humanity. On one side, the horses were pinned in by screaming drunks being ridden, for the most part, by drunks. Elise even saw one of the horse riders drinking straight from a tequila bottle, like a bandito would have done in a Hollywood western. This is when we knew we had to hightail it out of there and quickly. We pushed our way through the throngs of people and yes some of them are professional pick pockets. We finally made it to the other side and made a B-line for home.
   The hipica is great for someone in their 20's or 30's. For a family, we still think it is worth seeing but you have to get out of their before the raging partying begins, like we did. In fact, on our way out,  we saw lots of families leaving at the same time so we were not alone in knowing when the time was right. I could not even imagine being separated from a child in that mass of people, you always have to hold on to each other tightly.
   Some practical considerations before going to the hipica or running of the bulls is not to take a wallet or anything large and valuable. Go with a few hundred Cordobas and not much more. For me, I kept a close guard of my iPhone wedging it in my pocket making it difficult to steal.  Also knowing when to call it a night will make all the difference in this otherwise fun and exhilarating event.  As for us, Granada has been in party mode since two Fridays ago making this the 11th day of nonstop bottle rockets, loud music, fiestas, and revelry. We have another 6 days to go before the city slows down and reverts to normalcy. We are tired, no actually we are exhausted and at the same time are amazed to see how much energy the residents of this city have for their celebrations.

This house was featured on House Hunters International about 4 years ago.

Getting to know some of the new neighbors.

Two happy campers. 

Friends from around the world including Canada, Argentina, Chile, U.S. and Germany to name a few.

Sierra watching over Gabriel before the parade.

Even the tiny like candied apples

Our vantage point for the hipica

Relaxing with new friends.

The parade started off slowly but then got crazy.

Gorgeous horses

Even the young were caballeros.

The Tona girls

Me gusta las chicas de tona.

Sierra and the other kids of our group were invited to hope on a horse.

Viva Tona, just kidding I actually like Victoria Classica better.

As the sun was setting the parade started to thicken up.

We finally walked through the massive crowd in the background on our way home

Horses on the right marching into the crowds straight in front of them.