Hípica’s are a campo tradition in Nicaragua. One of rodeos, bull fighting and beer with locals dressed in jeans, cowboy hats and chaps.
I asked an English-speaking local at a restaurant on Sunday morning, as the full-fledged party was being constructed in the heart of Estelí, if it’s true that bull fighting is illegal, and why they’ve been occurring the past few days. His answer in broken English was that all things legal in Nicaragua are fuzzy lined. He went on to describe the treatment of animals as barbaric, and that he chooses to avoid the bull fights, but enjoys the horse riding.
Estelí is a roughneck-cowboy town known for tobacco, leather and coffee. Even residing from Montana (of course Missoula is 30 minutes away from real Montana) it’s odd to see people riding horses amid taxis, buses and cars.
The climax of Estelí’s Hípica brought people from all around the region, wearing their Sunday best button ups and wide-brimmed hats for a full day of food venders, beer and celebration. Structures and stages were being constructed in the part next to the cathedral, and stands and merchants were out in full force.
Of course being a couple of Americans, Scott and I started the morning on a food and drink adventure. Our first stop was an attempt to find a local treat — iguana soup. Turns out we both lack any knowledge of the local language, so we settled with a chicken stew and bull balls with a side of Toñas (the local beer favorite). After lunch we found a liquor store and purchased a couple bottles of rum and a bottle of cheap moonshine-esque liquor.
It was just the start of a long drunken stupor.
We left the hostel promptly at noon to find the rumored 200 cordoba party, where it’s all you can drink. We concluded that the rumors were false. Instead, we pub-crawled, beer stand to beer stand, drinking one, people watching and then moving to the next.
The people watching was spectacular. Kayla was on her A-game, whenever a peddler came up to us to sell sunglasses (everyone was selling sunglasses!), she would say, “un dolla?” The glasses were three. The peddler would grow frustrated and move one. We saw an old gringo, who looked like he took a wrong turn from a Miami country club; a young boy, carrying a fake-plastic bull; and Hannah sneaking into the bathroom of the hamburger place and running from the server.
It was a day of losing the crew and discovering them again. It seemed like every turn we made, we ran into someone we knew (even in a large city.) We finally rendezvoused again after a rest and some rum at the hostel. It turned out, Mark, Kayla and Hannah’s friend from Trinidad, found out how to get into the club.
The complex was overwhelming. The hard sun beating, and the eyes of the mustard yellow cathedral staring down. Young people were decked out in make-up, their best Abercrombie polos and fake Ray Bans, as they threw 220 cordobas at the poor employee sitting in the vendor.
When we paid our cords, Scott, Su and I thought if we were going to be in a place full of terrible music and grinding, we better get our money’s worth. Oh and did we ever. Each trip to the bar we carried away three drinks, one for each of us. The drinks were terrible, made of low quality syrups that masked the liquor completely.
Scott, the experienced drinker he is, showed me a trick that proved a great success throughout the six hours of continuous trips. We started tipping one bartender only 5 or 10 cords each return, but as the night progressed and the crowed grew more rowdy an impatient, the kid would spot us three rows behind customers and tend to us first.
It was truly amazing, but quite detrimental. Scott ended up getting his camera stolen, and as he punched at the thief, he cut his fist, but managed to get his phone.
Note: never keep things in your back pocket at a club or concert.
The music was intense, and the bass loud — a blend of American pop, Latin reggaeton and Mexican mariachi mix-ups. Despite how terrible it was we danced until the doors shut — at 8 p.m.
It was a mess. Scott was holding himself up by a pole next to the bar. (Did I mention his experience? He thought I would go first. HA.) Su found a Nica girl, and he needed the hostel for 400 cordobas (for some unknown reason), and Kayla broke her flip-flop, which was a catastrophe that ended with Hannah overwhelmed, until Mark came to the rescue.
Scott leaned his 6-foot-5 frame against me the whole way home, and when we arrived I told him he should compose himself. He stood up straight, walked past employees and when the coast was clear, slammed into the water cooler knocking it over. It was a spectacle beyond belief. Scott passed out in a rocking chair, Su lost his girl and Hannah and Kayla were off somewhere dancing in the street. It took greasy Nica pizza and a day or recovery to clear the fog.
Morning breaks in misty rains,
as the sun cuts through clouds,
giving the mountains and crumbling buildings contrast.
Nicas walk the roads in their Sunday bests
west, to the cathedral
adjacent to the central park.
It’s Christmas day, and the air is crisp and clean.
Snow and pine is replaced by sour and sweet,
a mixture of sewage and flowers.
I’ve found an edge and roughness to Nicaraguans.
It’s in their faces.
Both curiosity and animosity is in their eyes.
But their smiles,
they’re genuine and hospitable
to the point that they’ll give you everything they have.
(Well maybe not the teens!)
They’ll open the doors to their huts
made of straw, mud and paints of pastels.
They’ll offer beds to sleep,
and they’ll share the last room together.
The gringos get separate beds and clean sheets.
They’ll sell you their black gold,
their gallo pinto and treats
on the street corners
or in the bus cabin — capacity at double.
But when it comes to their land, it’ll be different.
It’s a country of political uncertainty
and social unrest
and after countless revolutions, civil and guerilla wars
they’ve proven to the West
that this country’s theirs —
littered streets, polluted rivers, empty moonshine
Christmas Eve is celebrated like Independence Day,
explosions crack and boom.
Car alarms follow in harmony,
the cathedral bells as the beat.
There’s no reason to their madness.
It’s simply Nicaragua.
The forth of July is put to shame by Christmas Eve in Nicaragua. Fireworks are going off like crazy, as car alarms follow in harmony with the cathedral’s bells as the beat. It’s midnight, and there’s no rhythm to their madness — simply explosions in chaos.
I went outside to take pictures of the fireworks, but I was turned away when one was thrown at me with a “hey gringo.” Feliz Navidad to you too.
I wasn’t upset. What can you do, when you’re probably the whitest person in a country that has a history of hatred for Americans? I’m just here for experience on a whim, learning about coffee. It’s for delusions of grandeur of becoming some well-read foreign correspondent, worldly and wise. We’ll see if that ever occurs. College graduation comes first.
It was strange walking outside this morning with the sun peeking through a misty rain. They call Matagalpa the “Pearl of the North” and the “Land of the Endless Spring.” I see how they came across those descriptions. Everywhere else in the country is sunny and warm with temperatures reaching into the 90s. Here it’s crisp and cool, and the air has that now accustomed Nicaraguan smell of sour and sweet — like sewage and flowers. It’s impossible to distinguish which one comes first.
Hannah and I got up this morning and went on a walk around town, criss-crossing through neighborhoods up into the hills. Matagalpa reminds me again of Missoula, but instead of pine trees and grasslands, it looks tropical with flowering trees. It’s a town set in a bowl with mountains all around, and the most prominent buildings are the cathedrals, like Missoula’s St. Francis church.
We were met with cheery-faced locals, who would give us directions. The roads are the quiet. The usual trucks, blastingspeakers to sell or preach a sermon, are absent for the first time this trip, and the few walking the sidewalks are in their Sunday best.
It’s the first Christmas without being cold, without some sort of snow in the hills and the smell of pine, but it’s still peaceful and relaxing.
A night of questionable calls, littered field and high scoring — Real Estelí pulls out a national championship a man down in extra-time.
It was my first professional soccer game the night of our return from Miraflor. Well it wasn’t exactly professional. Nica soccer isn’t necessarily the best in the world, but it was the national championship between Managua and Estelí — it was exciting the fans sure loved it.
The line wrapped around the entire stadium, as Hannah and our two American friends, Scott and Kayla arrived. Locals were dressed in Real Estelí jerseys and hats. Peddlers selling horns, balloons, hats and flags attacked us, coming in waves. Scott was close to caving, and continued to wish that he bought a horn throughout the game.
Tickets were supposed to be 50 cords, but Scott managed to avoid the seller’s eyes, so the first rounds of beer were on him. Dinner consisted of a delicacy — tortillas with soft cheese and cream. At first glance and smell I was skeptical, but they turned out quite tasty.
Inside, the place was erupting. We found sideline seats adjacent to the Estelí crazies. From start to finish they hollered, jumped and hammered on drums, as purple smoke every once in a while smothered the crowd.
The match was as much as a circus. The refs homered Managua. Every foul went in favor of Estelí, and Estelí thrived. Shots scattered on goal throughout the first half at our end, but nothing fell. Then Managua got a break, taking play coast to coast and tipped in a lucky first goal.
The crowd went silent for a moment, but it was only the eye of the storm. Next came beer cups and water bottles falling from the stands, drenching the visiting goalie. The refs didn’t budge, and the cops in front of us allowed it all.
The second half was much more exciting. Estelí rallied back, and as time was running out they looked to be the victor up 2-1, until the first red card was called in the game — it was on Estelí. The crowd was furious, shouting and throwing cups and water again. This time the ref was the target.
Managua scored on a penalty kick outside the box. Tie Game.
The four of us looked at each other, and thought how bad the crowd could get if they lost. There was a troop of riot police at both ends, especially in the visiting corner, where every row had a cop, dressed in riot gear and ready for war.
But as those thoughts rose, Estelí scored on a gorgeous crossing play in extra-time, and order was restored.
And after a lost and drunken stumble home, I found the hostel without the help of Hannah. Oh it was a night of firsts from ordering my first beers to cheering on a random team, but it was a win.
We’re back in Estelí after a long couple of travel days on chicken bus, and I finally have a moment to digest and recount all that’s occurred.
I’m sitting next to a professional blogger, who is raving about his websites, amount of followers and lists of advertisers who want a part of him. He only works with the best offers, he told me. Not the fancy hotels from Italy that want an ugly tourism photo on the front page for a meager 50 bucks a year. He’s been offered paid trips around the world, Euro rail passes from PayPal, and the offers continue to pile in.
At first I couldn’t take him seriously, but as I continued to buy into his odd, but charismatic demeanor, he gave me insight into how one can actually make a living traveling and writing. He’s worse at Spanish than I am. It was entertaining to listen to him pronounce names of towns in Honduras, as he Skyped reservations to his next hostel — iPod headphones in his ears, iPhone in hand.
We spent the last two days at Raul Ramos’ rural farm, a contact of Hannah’s, nearly on the Honduras border. The trip was an adventure. The morning consisted of terrible gut pains, followed by two long-cramped bus rides into the rural northwest corner of the country, and the conclusion of a winter solstice spent under the stars, throwing up from a friendly parasite. Hannah described where they pumped the water out the next day. I should’ve known better.
I’ve also failed in the mean time as a photographer. Hannah has fired me countless times. Lineth, Raul’s 13-year-old daughter almost took my place, but I think Hannah likes me a little more than she may show. I could be wrong, but I’m still around.
She definitely took care of my worthless ass at the farm, traveling 30 minutes to Las Sabanas on the back of a motorbike. She even made me soup that the mom, Lucia Ramos, thought would be good on my stomach.
But when we returned to Estelí, it was time for some separation. We went our separate ways to find some lunch, coffee and Internet, and I ran into our Alaskan friend Kayla at Café Luz. It’s funny how paths cross again and again.
Tonight Hannah’s running off to the club for ladies’ night with Kayla, Mark and two of his friends who arrived, leaving me (who had enough club music the other night) at the hotel we booked…Well actually she booked…that locks us out at 10 p.m.
I’m allowed to throw a few jabs in after her countless comments in Spanish that she knows I don’t understand.
So let’s see how she manages this night. She claims she doesn’t drink much, but things change on people’s first night in country.
I stayed at the bar with Rob, the entertaining blogger, and recapped all the shenanigans we’ve encountered from a soccer game to the outdoor club to the farm.
So here’s a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, and I’m even going to write a sports story of sorts. Yea Arts!
The sun was strong and hot Friday morning, as the five of us from the hostel walked 20 minutes north to the Texaco station to catch the chicken bus to Miraflor.
I was uncomfortable and pissed that I brought the leather shoes. They’re like sweat boxes, and they give me blisters. I have no reason to complain, but I was.
We made it to the string of run down shops where the bus would pick us up. I took off my shoes and watched the line of shade shrink as it made its way closer to our sweaty faces. Around us were eight or nine men, women and adolescent boys selling everything from garlic to sunglasses; frozen juices to chips and chili sauce. They would approach us one by one, and we’d wave them off. “No gracias,” we’d mumble in unison, waving index fingers. But they kept trying anyways.
The bus arrived, and it was a 1970s yellow American Bluebird school bus. The overhead compartments and the roof were filled with supplies that the locals purchased in Estelí, before heading back to their farms. There were just enough seats for the five of us, and the seat Hannah and I got was right above the back tire. Hannah’s knees were at her chest, and I held myself up with the adjacent seat. The driver stepped out for a moment, and he was replaced by a flock of peddlers. They walked up and down the aisle, and only a few made a handful of cordobas. The frozen juices were the most popular, followed by the chips and surprisingly the garlic.
When the driver sat back down in his seat, the merchants left — leaving a couple locals without seats standing in the aisle, holding tight to the bars attached to the ceiling. Holding tight would be key. The bus moved at a jogging pace, weaving around countless potholes. We jolted around curves — up and down the hills, as the bus’ engine roared and breaks screeched.
A man my age collected 15 cordobas (roughly 75 cents) from everyone, dodging obstacles and people. I think we paid a total of $25 for the two days at La Labranza, the Ruiz-Alaniz homestay in Miraflor, where we got a warm bed, three of beautiful meals and tours of their farm and surrounding areas.
The whole trip began with a discussion about Occupy Wall Street with “a boy named Su” (Sumedh Patkar) from Mumbai, India. We talked politics and differences between political systems and culture of America and India. This motif continued throughout our stay in Miraflor from personal accounts (but no opinions) of the Revolution and Contra War, and how the Nicas fought for their land that has been taken and redistributed over the past decades.
Su accompanied Hannah and I, along with Kayla and Scott, two Americans we met at the hostel. The bus ride was a little over an hour, and we were met on the road by Maria Celeste, one of the daughters of Orlando and Deyenira Ruiz-Alaniz. It was another long walk up their drive, and we passed a couple other farms in the communidad. We were greeted with curious looks and Celeste was even mockingly called a gringa because she was with us.
There are a handful of farms in Miraflor that have tourism relationships with Hostel Luna, and in the guidebook, it told us to not give monetary gifts to the family we are staying with, because they are already envied by their neighbors for their economic stature. You could tell that the Ruiz-Alaniz home was well kept. Celeste and her twin Maria José never stopped chores, except when Celeste would help Orlando lead tours and sing.
Climate and political change
We found ourselves laying in hammocks and lawn chairs, when Orlando came by and told us in Spanish (translated by Hannah and Kayla) about the farm and the recent history of the communidad. His voice was slow, soft and sincere. His eyes looked older than his face has weathered. He’s worked this farm his whole life and fought battles in his backyard. It used to be a small cooperative that split funds between the families, but throughout the political turmoil, they have since broken up into families, remaining friends and neighbors, but independent economically.
He said that in the past few years the government, with the help of neighboring Latin American countries, have tied production to the dollar to help avoid price change and inflation. It was an initiative to help the small farmer. He also talked about coffee, and he repeated what Mario Torres Torres said that last year was one of the strongest winters, raining early with up to 12 days straight of heavy precipitation.
Coffee produces every other year. On off years, when the coffee crop is low, it’s kept for personal use. A coffee plant lasts only seven years if it’s not cared for, such as when mega-farms sun grow their coffee every year (it’s traditionally shade grown every other year). The longer you have the plant the better, because it’s tough to start from scratch.
Deyenira came by to steal Orlando and gave us all cups of coffee and asked us if we wanted sugar. We all said no to sugar, but it still tasted sweet and a bit fruity — the best cup I’ve ever had. It was home dried and roasted, and later we found out that they dry their personal beans within the coffee berry, taking a month and a half to dry, which gave it the natural sweetness. It’s the coffee of their ancestors they said. The only reason we have the bitter drink at home is due to market demands. It only takes two days to dry outside the fruit.
We transitioned in conversation from coffee and Orlando to revolution and Deyenira’s father. He’s witnessed every change to Miraflor from Somoza, the Contras to the climate changes. Near the end of his tale, I had one final question. “Why do you feel it’s important to stay at the farm?” (The guerilla war was literally fought on the hillside.) His answer was su tierra, his land, was all he had.
I even spoke a phrase of Spanish to him. “Gracias para su palabras.” He gave me a smile.
As night fell, dinner was served. A beautiful meal of tortillas, home-made cheese, salsa, painted rooster and a tofu taco — lit by two candles. Only Orlando accompanied us. Deyenira and the daughters ate in the kitchen. After our plates were empty, Orlando picked up his guitar and sang with his daughter Celeste about Miraflor, Estelí and Nicaraguan love songs.
Their home is made to host three tourists, therefore our five made Celeste and her sister move to her grandparents for the evening.
Tours and a couple dollars
After breakfast, Celeste and Orlando took us to the hillside that was a major battlefield for the Contra War. Orlando joined the military when he was 16 in 1979. The law requires you to be 17, but his farm was on the line. It was 15 cordobas to walk on his neighbor’s property just to get a view, and when we concluded the tour of their farm and coffee crop, we packed up our backpacks said our goodbyes and followed Orlando an hour down the hill to see a waterfall.
Again we had to pay a neighbor. This time it was 23 cordobas. The hike down was steep. I had to spot for another tourist who arrived that morning from Manhattan, as she struggled down the climb. I guess there’s not a lot of hiking and cow dung in NYC.
It was only day five, but I continuously wondered why I was able to ignore the wide-range of wealth distribution in Nicaragua. The buildings, whether on a farm or in Estelí, are shacks. Places one would rarely see in the States. The people go to such lengths to make ends meet, working multiple jobs and tasks for only a few American cents. We need vacation to escape from work — to be sane. They use our vacation for their livelihood. They must work. There’s no time for vacation.
We stopped at the base of the second waterfall, and I sat on a rock, while Kayla and Celeste
swam in the pond. I stared at the water for awhile — nothing going through my mind, until I looked back at Orlando. He lied down on a flat rock and rubbed his hands against his face. He looked beat and exhausted.
He not only worries for his daughters and sons, but his 11 brothers and sisters, his coffee, tomatoes and fruit, and now us too. 10 jobs in one, and we can’t even stand one.
They don’t have time to think about politics, economics and social equality. They just withstand it, as the Somozas took their land, and the Sardanistas gave it back, and the Contras tried to reclaim it.
15 cords for a bus ticket.
15 cords for a view.
23 cords for two waterfalls
20 dollars for three meals, a bed and the opportunity to meet amazing, resilient people.
They know the value of the dollar. We just spend them.
Their homes look so beautiful, but they’re made of mud, stone and dirt — painted the colors of orchids at the base of volcanic shaped peaks and fertile valleys. It doesn’t smell like of city here in Pueblo Nuevo, a small village north of Estelí. It smells of perfumes from the flowers and trees. The occasional truck may spew black fumes, but it reminds you of what we do to the air. It’s quite different around here.
This morning we went to PRODECOOP to tour their facilities, and we got a little more than we expected. Two employees, Dennis and Maya, drove us north to the cooperative the president of PRODECOOP lives and grows coffee. It took two hours of winding highways, cobble streets and dirt roads — full of roadblocks like slow drivers, cattle and feral dogs.
Their car horns are a dialect of their own. They beep if you’re in their way, to say hello or to say fuck you — and it’s spoken in the same tone — a light beep beep — only two.
When we made it to Mario Torres Torres’ cooperative, we were met by shy children and women. I myself was shy and nervous. My only words were my camera, as well as “mucho gusto,” and “mucho gracias” — depending on if I was meeting them or leaving. Hannah went into a mud-brick room with Mario and conducted a short interview, as I popped in and out taking portraits of Mario or of a young girl named Jaqilin, who was shy of me but at the same time she was posing. Kids are the best, because they’re allowed to look into the lens.
After a few minutes, Hannah and Mario left and Hannah called me over. I assumed correctly that we were going to the plantation. Hannah continued to ask questions and take notes, and I followed a few paces behind, getting distracted by mountains, coffee beans and banana leaves. Every so often Hannah would turn around and murmur some secret like “banana leaves are used to shade the coffee, and they also feed the families” or “these leaves are falling off because they got too much rain this year and too little last year.” It gave me something to focus on, because I sure as hell could not follow their conversation.
I was glad the two of us are certified hikers, because Mario started out slow, but quickly picked up his pace in his business clothes and dress shoes and took us on a bushwhack up the hill to see the dying plants. It also got us high enough to get above the trees to see the valley bottom. The hills remind me of Missoula and their waves and tides, but here they’re formed by lava and their lines are vertical, not horizontal.
We finished the tour back at Mario’s, and he asked me to take a photo of him and his wife. I was excited because inside they were cooking, and it proved I wasn’t a bother. A small fire brewed and baked the stone stove, warming pots and pans, and a young boy came in. Mario insisted I take his photo too, but he hid behind his mothers legs and ran outside, before finally settling with an excited smile.
We gave our salutations and left Mario’s. Dennis and Maya joked among themselves, as Hannah and I rested our heads and minds against the window. Maya would look back every so often to speak with Hannah. They talked about Nacatamales, a local delicacy, Nicaragua and Montana. I think I was brought up once or twice, but I was only addressed when Maya said, “Here women rule” with a laugh. It was true, and it was a good laugh.
The truck stopped at a random gate. Both Hannah and I were unaware that inside we were going to get another tour — this time it was of the drying pads, sorting and shipping facilities. There Reino, an excited and passionate employee, took us through every step of the coffee procedure — from where they differentiate conventional and organic to where they use lasers to read the beans color. Black and white beans are bad, and green is good.
We ended the tour with a cup of coffee that tasted oddly like Craven’s Nicaragua Segovia blend without the high-tech roasters of course. It was easily the best cup of coffee we’ve had in Nicaragua. We’re pretty spoiled in Missoula. Hannah also said that Nicaraguans usually drink “Café Nicaragüense” — ground with dirt, rice and rocks.
It’s only day three, but it’s already been eye opening. We’ve seen places that are only depicted in movies or on the news, but it still hasn’t hit. We’re both too jumbled up trying to keep up with the all the hustle and bustle.
Tomorrow we’re off to play tourist with a friend from Alaska (who also went to Montana State — it’s a small damn world) to go to Miraflor and spend the night at a home-stay. We’ll be back up where we were today, but our reporter caps will be off. It’ll be nice to relax and enjoy rural Nicaragua.