Settling In

Here’s a handy tip for anyone traveling abroad: Do not read the US State Department Travel Advisory for the country you are visiting. Despite being considered by many to be one of the safest countries in the Americas, the State Department website has a laundry list of potential hazards, including:

  • Political demonstrations and strikes that occasionally become violent, including any of the following: tear gas, rubber bullets, fireworks, rock-throwing, tire burning, road blocks, bus/vehicle burning.
  • Armed robberies.
  • Kidnappings.
  • Sexual assault, murder, rapes.
  • Carjacking.
  • Freshwater sharks.

OK, that last one isn’t actually on the State Department list, but Lake Nicaragua (a 10 minute walk from my casa) is one of two lakes in the world featuring sharks. For those keeping score it’s the Bull Shark, an enterprising monster that is able to swim from the ocean, up many miles of rivers, until it reaches a lake where it can eat tourists while limiting its sodium intake. Needless to say I’m extra cautious when stepping into the shower around here, and if I come across a political demonstration I’m going to watch for burning sharks.

Possible source of political unrest. Look who’s running for Presidente:

Nicaragua is also the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, trailing only Haiti (the heavyweight champion of poor countries). Even with the shine they put on Granada for tourists, it still has a feel of poverty about it. Besides the obvious beggars in the streets, there’s just a sense that nothing is quite being kept up like it should. Mexico seemed like Dubai compared to here. Because of the vast wealth differential between the people of Nicaragua and tourists, petty crime such as theft and pickpocketing are said to be rampant. Notwithstanding all that, I’m of the mind that the vast majority of Nicaraguans are good, honest people, so I plunge ahead into crowds without being especially paranoid. So far everyone I’ve interacted with has been very nice, but I don’t go walking around flashing my gold chains and diamonds like I do at home.

Granada’s central point is the Parque Central, which is about four blocks from my casa. One of the quirks about this place is that there are no street addresses, so everything is described in relation to something else. For instance, my place is on “Calle Corrales, four houses toward the lake from the gym.” Everything is described this way. Finding specific businesses can be a bit of a challenge.

I like this address system, though. I think I’m going to start using it at home. From now on, address my mail to:

Andrew Berkowitz
45th Street
Three doors west of the the crazy guy who walks around with a military backpack while peeking in people’s garbage cans

Vancouver, Washington 

Yesterday I did some initial exploring, including a walk through the Mercado Municipal. This is a fairly massive open air market sprawling over several city blocks, some of it outside, some of it inside, and some of it under a mass of tents and awnings. I’ve been through there twice now, and each time I get lost and can’t find my way back to where I was before. The market has vendors selling everything from eggs to fruits and vegetables, to meat and sausage, to beans, rice, spices and fish. The fish section of the market is a smell I will not soon forget.

Need a whole pig’s head? Done. And also a pair of shoes and a bootleg CD of Celine Dion? No problem. It’s a mass of dark, narrow, winding passageways with everything you can possibly imagine. Very few tourists seem to venture in there; they seem to stick to the four block stretch around the Parque Central. As far as fruits and vegetables, there seems to be an abundance of onions, tomatoes and about 25 different varieties of bananas. Yesterday I bought some delicious mini bananas that taste almost nothing like the bananas in the US and are, to put it plainly, adorable.

Horse-drawn carriages are one of the primary forms of transportation. There are mercifully few cars in Granada, and most of those are taxis or motorcycles:

This morning I was awoken at 6:30 a.m. by a Catholic processional of some sort outside my window, complete with a giant crucified Jesus statue and accompanied by tubas, trombones and clarinets played by people who may not have technically played these instruments before this morning. I can sleep through a lot, but not amateur tuba hour beneath my bedroom window. Apparently the devout want to beat the heat. 

After a quick morning snack I went out for a walk down to the lake, which stretches as far as the eye can see. (Quick fact: It is the 19th largest lake in the world, the 9th largest lake in the Americas and the largest lake in Central America. Wikipedia did not offer a size comparison to Ricki Lake.)

There’s a long stretch of restaurants and bars near the lake, which were completely closed and empty at 7 a.m. In fact, the entire area was deserted. The lakefront area has the look of something that was hastily built without a lot of thought. For instance, there is a playground for children approximately every 15 feet, which seems excessive unless the entire town is under the age of eight. Also, they have entirely superfluous signs in front of everything. For instance, there was a sign in front of the playground that showed a picture of a playground, in case you couldn’t figure out what the swings and slide were by, you know, looking at them. And even more puzzling, a sign in front of an area for posting signs that showed that it was a sign posting area. I have a feeling that the designer of the lakefront area was Capitán Obvious.

I was hot and sweaty when I got back to the casa, and the internet was still out (and had been since the night before), so I took a shower and went to a lovely cafe to have breakfast and avail myself of some complimentary wi-fi. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the exchange rate. It’s about 23 Cordobas to the dollar, and most of the conversions I make in my head are wildly inaccurate. My 87 Cordoba breakfast was about $3.80. The money here is gorgeous, which I guess makes sense because it’s essentially more decorative than functional.

After breakfast I did some more exploring of the town, arranged a tour to the top of Volcán Mombacho for tomorrow, and came back to the casa to get some work done. While I was working, Roberta the housekeeper came by to clean. She comes for an hour or more every day, which is wild overkill. By the end of my trip she will have spent more time cleaning this house than I’ve spent in total cleaning my own house over the last 20 years. She left this afternoon at 4:30 and is coming back tomorrow morning. I’m actually starting to feel panicky about messing up the house enough in the intervening 15 hours to make it worth her time. I may let a passing goat into the house for a nightcap.

The decoration of this house could be described as “Basic Chicken”:

The casa features a small (unheated) jetted pool in the middle of the living room. I have not yet been in it, but two Michael Phelps-sized cockroaches did laps last night:

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