I am cycling to raise money for the fantastic UK based chaity Macmillan Cancer Support. Big thanks to everyone who has sponsored me so far! Justgiving is a quick, easy and secure way to donate online. See my other fundraising page, specific to the Macmillan organized part of the trip

Friday, 26 February 2010

Into Managua... and onto Barrio Edgar Mungia

I´d given Alan the mosaic from my class in Granada to say thanks, and as I was packing up in the morning he gave me a beautiful dream catcher he´d made from twine, nuts and the feathers of the chocyero (parakeet)... so quick to make a bond when you travel in this way, also felt sad to be leaving. I was cheered by the ground on the way out seeming more solid (dew compacting the sand overnight?) so I had to push less, though there were still plenty of skiddy moments! Anyhow, I got back to Ticuantepe quicker than I´d excpected and was back on the carreterra (highway) heading into Managua by midmorning.

I´ve got to admit I was apprehensive about coming to Managua after reading the guidebook and other travellers tales, but contrary to all the warnings, having spent a week here I´ve had an amazing time. Admittedly I´ve had my own personal bodyguard, lookout and guide in the form of 15 year old Arlen, whose undertaken to not let me out of her sight, and to make sure that I have company whenever she goes to school! (slightly odd to be told by someone 11 years my junior to go back to the house while she goes to buy bread!)

Through one of those string of connections of friends of friends back home I was put in contact with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (who I also had Spanish lessons with back in London), and given the enmails of their co-ordinator out here in Managua, Liz and Ernestina the head of a school they support here, los Pollitos. Arlen is Ernestina´s daughter. (And in one of those really odd conincidences, Angelica who I met at Liz´s house, had used to work for a woman called Veronica Campinelli, who comes from the same small village on the east coast of Scotland where I grew up, Gullane!) So a big thanks to Brian and for the link.

I spent the Monday I arrived with Liz, who was incredibly welcoming, and happy to let me rock up and start scrubbing my dirty laundry in her sink (laundry sink that is) straight after lunch! Liz originally came out to Nicaragua during the Revolution of the early 90´s and was telling me tales of her humanitarian work here over the years. After Hurricane Mitch Liz was translating for the British marines on the north eastern border with Honduras when she met the chief of the Miskito tribe. The Mosquito coast was incorporated into Nicaragua in 1894, and the land of the Miskito Indians is divided down the middle by the river which is used to mark the border with Honduras, so that the north of their land is in Honduras and the south in Nicaragua, meaning the Miskitoes need passports and visas to pass north to south. Their chief came with a letter for the Queen, hoping to present it to her in person, asking for her to review what he saw as a breach of the Miskito´s human rights. Both Liz and I hope he received an answer.

I spent a lot of Monday playing with Liz´s delightful 3 year old Ryan, who happens to be a meticulous colourer-in, and an incredibly lively bundle of energy... I think just watching him play on the climbing frame at Pizza Hut that evening wore me out more than any of the cycling! Or perhaps I slept so well that night at Liz´s because of the comfort of a real bed and an electric fan after four sweat soaked nights in my pod of a tent!

In a city which doesn´t use street names and where directions are given as routesd from landmarks, it was a relief to have Liz´s clear instructions of how to travel on to los Pollitos. With only a brief blip of lostness I arrived, met by a beaming Arlén and was immediately swept up into the daily life of the massively extended family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents and neighbours that makes up Barrio Edgar Mungia (barrio meaning neighborhood, refers to a small colection of houses in the few streets surrounding the central park, Managua being made up of many consecutive barrios).

Los Pollitos, where I´ve been spending my mornings joining in with the classes and playtime of the pre-school and 1st grade children, is a colourful building sitting behind the basket ball court at the top of the central Park. The fund raising eforts of Brian and the NSC back in the UK mean that Ernestina and the other teachers here receive a regular monthly wage, and has also improved the conditions of the site and the equiptment of the school, including adding a new block of two classrooms within the last year. It is a lively and vibrabnt environment, where the teachers are clearly loved, its genuinely heartwarming to see the affection between Patricia, Marsella, Soyla and their pupils. I feel incredibly lucky to have been so warmly welcomed to participate in the classes, where I´ve heard lots of singing, seen Spanish and maths classes, helped out with making paper windmills with the first grade, and even led a mini English session! I´ve given a couple of imporomptu demonstrations of paper folding for kids with a couple opf the teachers, and whiled away one afternoon showing Marsisella how to make little soft toys from scrap material. My camera´s been a big hit too, with the kids taking turn agçfter turn at photographing each other and their teachers. Wicked!

More than anything its been a delight to be so unquestioningly absorbed into the endless flow of games both in the playground and in the park late into the evenings. In what feel like a very safe and secure environment kids of all ages, from tiny little ones up to teenagers, play in big groups at chase and tag games, never ending variations of ball games (apart from basketball, despite the court, none of the balls bounce as they´re mostly semi flat) and acrobatic tumbling over the swings, monkey bars (paso mano) and seesaws. It´s a rough and tumble way opf life that includes everyone,where sharing is a natural given and the kids look after one another in a teasing bantering and competitive way, (its only on a couple of very rare occasions when playfighting has turned a bit nasty or tears have flown, these kids are really hardy and full of laughter.) I´ve only really experienced this kind of community based life before in Urubamba in Peru, and it reminds me of my parent´s generation´s stories of growing up.

As the new gringa in the barrio I´ve been a bit of a source of fascination for the kids, who are great in finding my lack of Spanish completely insignifigant! Peggy came in handy today when Arlén and I took ot in turns giving the littler kids lifts (vuelta´s) round and round the square. The most I managed at a time was three, two kids sitting on the pannier rack at the back, one in front on the crossbars...(good job I´ve built my legs up on the hills these last weeks) they were delighted!

The adults too have been hugely generous with their time and company, and are also totally unfazed by my pigeon Spanish. It´s been fascinating comparing the customs of the UK and Nicaragua. Isaac´s dad Jerry seemed amazing when I confirmed the pub culture stories he´d heard from another gringa, and finds it strange that so many people smoke pot regularluy, considering here being caught with a spliff can mean 2 years in prison. He was also impressed by jobseeker benifit and help finding work, and was telling me about the thousands of dollars Nicaraguans will pay to get ilegal access to the USA as it is so hard to obtain a visa legally.

Food is always a point of interest, I´ve adjusted to the Nicaraguan diet of callo pinto (rice and beans) at all three meals, served with eggs, bread and sweet black coffee for breakfast, and meat, salad, pasta and bread at lunch and dinner. After explaining how we often have sweet breakfasts, bread toasted in a toastie-maker appeared with butter and milky coffee this morning as a treat... so thoughtful!

I´m often asked my age, and if I have kids, and my answers (26, no) are always taken without surprise, even though this is such a family based community, a sign of how acceting everyone is. It seems girls here marry as young as 14, and will have children within the year, though any wait til they are older, 18, 19, or in their early 20´s. Many of the adults I have spoken to have older children at university, which the families pay for as is not subsidised by the government, law and medicine seem popular subjects. Religion also comes up often, and in a place I was expecting to be mainly Catholic, I think so far I have met more Mormons, interesting!

Anyway, my days as a Mannaguan are coming to an end, (until July that is, when I return here before my flight home) as I plan to cycle out on Monday after a weekend of exploring.

A day of firsts...El Chocoyero

Sunday 21st was a day of firsts for me. My first puncture of the trip happened within a few yards of leaving the camp. I had Peggy upside down, wheels akimbo and my tyre levers at the ready when Pablo, one of the biologists at the camp, came past in his truck and gave me my firrst lift of the trip, (is that ´cheating´?!) straight out of the horrendously steep crater... yay!... and to my first bike shop of the trip in Massaya.... fascinating. With the wheel still on the smiley and not at all patronising mechanic found the puncture in a bucket of water and patched it with two scraps of rubber melted on by beingg pressed between two red hot plates of metal. Pumped up with air out of a hose pipe contraption I was set to go again.

My target for the night was the nature reserve El Chocoyero, where I´d been told I´d be able to camp by a tour operator in Granada. I reached Ticuantepe by midday, from where I´d been told to ask directions onwards to the reserve. In my brief experience so far it seems that all directions are accompanied by serious shakes of the head or looks of bewilderment and ´warnings that its ´muy lejos´, very far, no m,atter the distance, so I wasn´t suprised by the same response with El Chocoyero. A couple of hours and buckets of sweat later though, I had a newfound respect for ´lejos´, having wrestled Peggy up sandy track after sandy track through forest and pineapple harvest (bought the sweetest pineapple I´ve ever tasted from two tiny boys at the side of the track for only 3 cordobas, about 8p!) and was pushing on! Had my first close encounter with local wildlife when a bird crapped on me (that I took to be good luck!) and my first fall ( a bit embarassing seeing as I´d just passed a father & daughter with an enthusiastic ´adios´! before promptly toppling to the right in a cloud of sand... meant I got company for the next push up, and the Dad seemed really proud at my reaction when I saw the beautiful views as we reached the top of the climb. Definitely worth the struggle against the sand.

Obviously was totally chuffed to finally reach El Chocoyero... think I slightly suprised the guides who were sitting chilled in the couple of wooden shacks that made up the reception when I burst onto the scene all a sweaty-sticky-filthy asking for camping... at least I think so, seeing as they suggested I rest before showing me around!

Behind the buildings lay an area of forest dense in flora and fauna, and wioth a waterfall (cascada) named El Chocoyero after the parakeets that nest in the volcanic rock it pours down, and whose water is pìped to the local community for drinking and washing. There is a second waterfall, El Brujo, but the path to that is closed since a landslide blocked it off.

With the sharp eyes and ears of my guide Alan I spotted my fisrt howler monkey, and my first guatuza, ashy mammal that looked a bit like an earless rabbit, or a big hunched prarie dog. I was warned of the myth surrounding the 250 year old chilmate tree - visit it at mignight and a vision of a cross of canles might tempt you to pick a white flower that appears, run 500m away without ooking back over you shoulder and you will be rich, but without a soul, or look back over you shoulder when you hear the cvalls of long dead loved ones, and you´ll be whisked away by demons.(Think that was the jist of it as far as my Spanish interpretation allowed!)

Alan pointed out the burrow of a green iguana, who apparently lay around 80 eggs once each year, of which only two mature because of the number of predators that hunt them. Another guide brought me an oxybelis fulgidus (skinny & harmless green snake) to hold, along with the identification book to point it out, and assure me it wasn´t poisonous.

There were a few other visitors while I was there, but I got the impression campers were rare, so I was glad to be able to shower out back. That seemed particularly lucky after Alan explaining that Ticuantepe sits on top of 20km or 105,000 litres of water which has been sold in its entirety to the Japanese by the Nicaraguan government. The Japanese bottle the water and then sell it back to the Managuans, with not a peso returning to the Ticuantepe community. Crazy.

So anyway, I whiled away the afternoon sitting on the veranda chatting with Alan til the end of the guide´s shift. Once they´d left Felix, the night shift, settled into his hammock and I pottered off past the shell of a dead armadillo to my tent for an uber-early night!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

First day sola...

I´ve finally done it... headed off on my own! Admittedly I´ve only just about made it out of Granda, about 24 miles up the road, to the beautiful Laguna Apoyo. Am camping in a Spanish Scool and Eco Farm within the Natural Reserve alongside the lake, came shooting down steep twist after steep twist to get here, so am trying not ot think about how on earth I am going to make it out of the crater in the morning! But whatever struggles tomorrow brings for my legs, it will be worth it cause after arriving in the early afternoon and setting up camp I spent a good hour or so drifting in the lake, and chatting to a smily local guy Javier, in my stilted Spanish, making use of my imaginary ´novio´ at times! Drew and painted a little bit for the first time of the trip... one of things I was really looking forward to having the time to do... so relaxing. I´m really rusty, but that kind of seems appropriate, seeing as Nicaragua is known for its Naive paintings, (as an older German resident I had dinner with here tonight was pointing out).

Have got to admit this morning was a bit of a struggle, woke up bunged up and with my left ear ready to explode with an ear infection that I´ve been treating the last couple of days but wont seem to go away. But had put my mind to setting off today, so got some bread cheese bannanas and maize bread from the market and headed off towards the cemetary and up along the road we came in on with Macmillan. It seemed to be a long and very very slow and hot morning of cheeky gradual long climbs, lots of stops to drink and snack, and so when I finally arrived at the stunnig view from Mirador Catarina, was pretty chuffed at having got there with just my leg power (had first photo shoot with Peggy up there!)and also knew I was just about ready to stop. Catarina overlooks Laguna Apoyo and out to Volcan Mombacho, and asking directions to the lakeside hospedajes promted a lot of interest in Peggy from a friendly group of local lads and a lot of different answers on directions, most of which I didn´t quite get, but which got me to the ain square and from there, mixed in with warinings of the dangerous descent, got really clear directionsd into the crater.

Next few days plan is to continue to Masaya, then Ticuantepe, then El Chocoyero Nature Reserve, (or in other direction, back to Catarina, then San Marcos, Ticuantepe, Masaya) aiming to get into Managua Tuesday morning.

And so, after all that waffling, am off to swing myslef to sleepiness in a hammock in the dark... putting off getting into my sweaty tent til the last minute!
big love

Friday, 19 February 2010

my number out here...

07797806021 from UK
[505]83737827 Nicaragua

Thanks to Matt at Bike Names for giving me half price on the stickers I got printed up for Peggy with my justgiving address.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


Have been living it up in Granada this past week as I´ve gradually made the transition from being one of a group of 50 odd to going solo... a strange experience!

We were out celebrtating the end of the Macmillan challenge in style Monday night, followed by the inevitable lazy hangover morning, playing (or more watching Steph invent?!) crab wars in the pool of the Hotel Colonial .. mosaic bar stools in the last bit of luxury I´ll see for a good few months no doubt!

I couldn´t keep up with the stay-awake-til-the-bus-leaves drinking efforts of Terry, Jen, Doug, John, and the rest of that crew on Tuesday night, though I gave it my best shot, until Mark Georgie and I waved everyone off in the small hours... really emotional, and oddly reminiscent of a wedding handshake line! Serioiusly though, it was such a delight spending the last two weeks with all of you guys, wish it could have been longer. Maybe some of you fancy coming back out in the year for a cheeky
little stint of cycling further north?!

In a lucky coincidence the bar we spent that night in, Imagine, was run by a guy called Kevin, who Gareth got chatting to, only to find out Kevin´s big into mountain biking and has a campground just out of town that he offered us for free. So I´ve spent the last couple of nights camping in Kev´s back garden, with a shower and toilet all to myself as the guinea pig first guest... his surrogate family are working on the garden at the minute, laying paths among the mango trees. Wicked! And surprisingly quiet considering its on Calle Palmira which seems like a busy street when you walk up it, but no need for earplugs there!

It´s been crazy lucky timing being in Granada at this time of year, slap bang in the middle of the Poets of the World festival, Nicaragua´s cultural festival, which meant we heard impassioned recitals and live music in the square, and while learning mosaics from Mirna in a local cafe, were drawn out into the street by Latin rythyms to find a procession of dancers in a myriad of costumes, representing different regions of Nicaragua. The scythe-wielding reapers that chased kids down side streets were pretty freaky, I stayed safely on my stoop when they came near! Georgie took some stunnig photos that I´m hoping to nick to put on here when she emails me some!

After saying a final goodbye to Mark, Georgie and Alan at vairious times on Thursday, spent Friday pottering about, doing laundry (thanks to coming second in the pub quiz at the Irish bar Wed night), skyping, finishing my mosaic, and buying random bits of food in the hectic local market & generally getting used to being on my own. Its a strange transition, especially being suddenly so aware of the limitaions of my Spanish, before there was always someone to have an easy converstation with in English, now its stilted small talk, but that´s one of the reasons I came here, to be dropped in the deep end language wise, hopefully I´ll come out less pigeon-tongue-like! Decided to move on from Granada now that everyone´s off think I need to get started on my own, I have Kevin´s indirect but apparently pretty route to follow, towards Managua via Catarina and El Chocoyero.

So it´s goodbye Granada. Its been relaxing and chilled, but at the same time I think this is the first time I could say I´ve felt ´culture shock´, I´ve never really understood it before, and even though there were a lot of street kids selling finger puppets in Peru when I was there in 2005, and the school in Chichubama was very poor, I don´t think I have ever experienced such an aggressively close juxtaposition between the rich ostentation of tourism and hunger, poverty and substance abuse of locals. The tourist restraunt strip at night is teeming with very small children, kids, teens and adults, either selling sweets, cigs and gum, or performing (saw some stunning break dancing that was more body contortion, and some wicked fire spinning) or just outright begging or trying to scavenge food. A couple of times a gropp of kids would move on and a lone body would be left asleep on the pavement. Troughout the day and night you´ll pass kids and adults with glazed eyes, apparntly glue sniffing is a major problem, and the local gutrot brew, we were told after a local came up trying to sell a kitten, it looked like a bundle of feathers in his jacket. It is a very uncomfortable contrast between rich and poor, sitting enjoying a coffee on the veranda of old Colonial Alhambra Hotel, thinknig that most Central Americans never get to taste decent coffee beans as most of it is exported.

But still, it is a beautiful city, with the crumbling peeling Spanish colonial architenture, and all the Nicaraguans I have spoken with have been warm and helpful, especially the folk I´ve met during the mosaics classes at Mirna´s cafe, who seemed really interested in and impressed by our Macmillan cycle. I can see how a visit to Granada might relax you into settling permanently...there certainly seem to be a fair number of gringos settled here.