When people think of Nicaragua, they often ask where is that again? I only remember it has something to do with an Iran-Contra affair. I was one of those people. When I received an email from the Peace Corps saying “INVITATION!” I opened it up to see Nicaragua in bold. I was disappointed that it didn’t say Guatemala, just because I had heard more about Guatemala. I then googled it to make sure I knew exactly where in Central America I would be living. I pictured jungles, and beaches, but the idea of swimming down a canyon was the farthest adventure from my mind.
Somoto Canyon is a little-known jewel of Nicaragua. I don’t think I ever would have heard of it if I hadn’t lived here. It opened up to tourism ten years ago, and it lies on the border of Honduras. My friend Jen and I had wanted to go for a while, and we decided to go to celebrate our one year anniversary in Nicaragua (and her birthday!). We decided to go for the $30 long tour with Namancambre Tours. The tour included a private guide, lunch, and a stay at the hostel.
Before going, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I tried steering away from comparing it to the Grand Canyon and getting my hopes up of rafting down wild rapids. I had seen pictures on facebook of other Peace Corps volunteers happily floating down the river in red life jackets. It looked like a pretty tame experience.
Jen and I arrived in Somoto after 4.5 hours on a bus. I could feel how far up north we were. As soon as we got to the bus station, I smiled and said to Jen: “It’s like we’re in the Alaska of Nicaragua!” Gonzalo, the owner of Namancambre, found us took us to the hostel. Somoto has about 20,00 people, and I could see that it was a pretty quiet town as we drove through the streets. It’s pretty flat, which contrasts against the surrounding emerald mountains that hug Somoto. It was a rainy, cool evening. Jen and I went to dinner. After a day of riding on refurbished school buses, one is bound to get hangry (angry+hungry).
We walked a few blocks down the street and ran into the Karniboro Restauraunt. I had seen it on the news. I saw footage of the owner grilling huge, glorious chunks of meat over an open flame, and thought we should check it out. I don’t eat meat nearly as often here as I did in the states, just because it’s relatively expensive. Beans and rice give you similar amounts of nutrition and protein with less chemicals. Jen and I stood outside, peering in and giggling. We looked like 16-year-olds with our fake IDs, deciding whether we should enter a bar or not. Despite being underdressed, we went inside. I wore a flannel shirt and Jen wore a Notre Dame sweater. It reminded me of my dad because that’s where he went to college. The bar had wine, which means that it was a fancy place, no matter what kind of wine. Pristine, white cloths covered the tables, and vibrant artwork dotted the walls. Flamenco music filled the air. I drank sangria that surely came out of a box, and ate a thin piece of steak with fries and chimichurri. It was good, but the portions were small and I knew I’d still be hungry. We paid for flavor, not to fill our stomachs.
When we got back to the hostel, there was a wedding reception next door. They were blasting bachata, cumbia, and pop music, so obviously I danced in our room. I wanted to save my energy for the next day, so I thought it would be wiser to stay in but still dance a bit. Jen and I ended the night by watching America’s Next Top Model, the college edition. We laughed at how ridiculous the models were (which is the point of the show). I shook my head as the girls on the show said “I miss my boyfriend” or “I miss my mom”. After having been away from my mom for a year and after having been in long distance relationships where I’ve gone for months without seeing my significant others, I thought: Oh, honey. You have no idea. I was jealous that they would only go for a few weeks without seeing their loved ones.
Day 2: The Tour
Ding, dong. Ding, dong. It was 5:30 and the church bells were already going off. I took out my earplugs and got dressed. By now, I’m used to only setting an alarm as a habit I’ve brought from the states. I should stop, though, since a rooster, dog barking, car alarm, church bells, or music, will always wake me up before. That’s why I go to bed by 10.
Jen and I went downstairs and met Alvaro, our guide. Since I wasn’t sure what we would be doing exactly, or what to bring, I just showed him my bag of snacks, water, and extra clothes. We held my Chaco sandals and said they would be fine, os I took off my tennis shoes. My Chacos have been one of my bet investments as a volunteer. They have lasted through hot beach trips, long school days, and hikes to volcanic lagoons. Surely I could trust them to trek through the canyon. Alvaro put our things in two plastic bags, then put that combination into a water proof sack. I was ready to say goodbye to my phone, in case of a leak. Good thing it was a $14 “chiclero”.
“We have to get a taxi to the entrance of the canyon”, Alvaro said. “It will cost $1”. I thought that we’d get a ride to the entrance, but this was me after having spent last month at a surf resort. This would be a different kind of tour. We walked about 15 minutes on the side of the road. We found a bus stop, where a cab driver was waiting for people who were bound for Honduras. We could tag along, since the entrance was on the way. Alvaro said we needed to wait to fill the taxi up, so we waited. About 2 minutes later, he said “Muchacha! (Young woman) How about we pay him a few cents more to take us now?” I nodded my head, then as we loaded our things, I said “My name is Charleen”, with a a smile. He seemed confused, but I didn’t want to be called Muchacha. It’s ok if my friends jokingly call me that, but I explained to him that too many men who don’t know me catcall me using that word, and I don’t like how aggressive they sound when they say it. Then, he understood.
On the way to the entrace, Jen and I silently gazed at the mountains around us. I was so happy to see a new part of this small country. We got out of the cab and started walking through a town called La Playa (The beach). The only “beach” is the colorful rocky formations along the river. It smelled like manure. Roosters crowed and cows chomped on their grassy breakfasts. We made it to the entrance of the canyon. The beige and brown canyon walls were maybe 70 feet high. They reminded me f the basalt formations I grew up with in Eastern Washington State.
We walked over slippery rocks, and Alvaro put down our things. He set the life jackets on the floor and cheerfully said “Well, put on your life jackets and get in the water!”. The water was chilly. Again, it reminded me of home. The river was about 15 feet wide in some parts, and we swam to keep moving. The current wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d thought. I liked it. This meant we could go at our own pace.
As we floated along the quiet river, I felt like I was reliving a dream I’d had years ago. In my dream, I was moving calmly through mangroves and rocky formations without a destination. There was something so unique about the ways in which I moved past the rocks in the water. Right now, it seems so silly for me to tell you this, but in my dream I felt like I belonged in that place so much. I felt similarly in Somoto Canyon.
We kept floating on, quietly. Alvaro didn’t say much, but when he did, I could tell that he loved nature. See those black sacks hanging there? Those are bats! Jen didn’t believe him, so he splashed some water their way, and their little black winged bodies flew away. “Are those vampire bats? I asked him. No, because if they were, they would have already got you! I chuckled at his sass. We were both similar because we didn’t say much, but when we did, we could be sassy. I’m used to having tour guides that like to talk on and on about every little thing they see, but Alvaro wasn’t like that. At first I was wondering if I should be asking him to tell us more about the history of the area, but then I was just fine. I wanted to experience the place for myself. If I had questions, he answered them.
The Canyon is a geologist’s dream come true. I didn’t expect to see so many different colored rocks. There were smooth rocks in colors like burnt orange, pink, red, and light purple. I had to tell myself to look up so that I wouldn’t end up staring down at the beautiful rocks the whole time. At one point, Alvaro stopped and pointed to a grassy hill. That’s Honduras, he said. I explained that as Peace Corps Nicaragua Volunteers, we’re not allowed to go to Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador (even though all of those countries host volunteers). Those three countries are said to be less safe because of gang violence. I still want to visit them after my service, though.
Right before the halfway point, I tripped and fell on my back. No amount of insanity workouts and core tightening could prepare me for walking over mossy, slippery rocks in my sandals. I flipped over because I would have rather fallen on my back than on my face. At least I think that’s what explains it. “Let me know if you need a hand”, Alvaro kept saying throughout the tour. I never asked him for help-I was a strong, independent woman after all. Why would I need help? Alvaro noticed my attitude and would comment on it later. Jen knew how stubborn I am, and she helped me up without me asking. I felt silly for falling, and even sillier for not wanting help.
Halfway through, we stopped to snack on Oreos, bananas, and rosquillas (baked corn cakes). We hadn’t seen any other humans until this point. Soon enough, there was a family of Europeans that passed us. The father wore blue, Hawaiian style board shorts and his daughter ran over the rocks in the water. She and her brother couldn’t have been more than 10. The mom smiled at us and chatted away with her kids in a language I craved to understand. I don’t eavesdrop, but the language nerd in me always wants to figure out at least part of what foreigners are talking about. That’s why my mind is so happy in places like Barcelona, where one can’t walk to a bakery without hearing 2 or 3 languages being spoken in the street.
The halfway point is where other tours usually begin. Behind and in front of us I could see hordes of Nicaraguans walking over the rocks, hugging their black inner tubes. We were walking and swimming down the canyon, while this huge group would take a more relaxing route. We pressed on. I realized that my life jacket served me more to serve as a cushion when I fell, and not to swim in, so I took it off. I Nicaraguan woman my age swam next to me, and we chatted. She was from Esteli. Her lipstick was insanely bright red, despite having swam with it on. My lipstick usually fades away by the time I walk from my house to class. Her friend wore a cute fedora and swam behind us. They looked really good for being on an outdoor excursion. I was in my sports bra and spandex shorts and was more concerned with not falling again. After I took off my life jacket, the first women said “you’re taking it off?” concerned. “Yup, I can swim!” I nodded with a smile.
Then came the cliff diving part. I was nervous. I stood there, wondering what would happen to me if something went wrong. “Don’t be scared. Hold on to me”, Alvaro said. I held on to his shoulder and hand. At this point I felt comforted, as if he were my dad, encouraging me on just another one of our lake days. The last time I did anything outdoorsy with my actual dad was when I was 14. We hiked 10 miles up to Entiat Glacier in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. That was the only time my dad approved of me eating as many Snickers bars as I wanted. Just now, do I realize how much this contrasts ironically with the jug of V8 vegetable juice he stuck in his backpack. He will probably outlive me.
While I debated taking the baby jump, Jen climbed up the rocks to take the 18-meter jump. “It’s at your own risk”, Alvaro warned her. Jen nodded and looked as calm as if she were just running to the store to buy chips. I was scared. So was Alvaro. “Don’t worry”, I comforted him. “She’s gone skydiving”. “Oh, ok”, he said. “With a parachute” I added. “Oh, well with a parachute it’s different!” he added. I knew she would be fine, as long as she didn’t land on her back. Sure enough, Jen jump right off the rock, waving her hands and screaming. By the last second, she landed on her back. I was scared she wouldn’t come up. Thankfully, her head popped out of the water, and another man helped her swim to the nearest rock. Then, I jumped of the 5 meter. It’s funny how reassuring it can be to see someone else do something scary. It makes it less scary. I don’t think I’ll ever have the guts to do the 18-meter jump though.
Several hours into our tour, we all started to get cold. We were in the shade, but we started to swim again to warm up. We reached the end of the canyon, and a man in a rowboat picked us up along with other tourists. During our ride back to shore, I stuck my hand in the water, feeling the ripples, as if saying goodbye to the experience I was still processing. A girl behind me started talking about how she wanted a Starbucks drink with her Spanish companion. Oh, honey. You have no idea.
We hopped onto shore, and would be waling for 30 more minutes before lunch. It felt like a mass exodus of tourists, both Nicaraguan and white people. As we trudged past fields with horses and people staring how out of place we all looked in our outdoor gear, Alvaro began opening up.
“I look up to Americans because in your culture, you are used to doing exercise and being fit. You also do things on your own and you don’t ask for help. Like when you tripped, you didn’t ask for help, and I admire that”.
Interesting. I replied that “Well, it depends. The people who visit this place are in shape. And yes, I am independent and don’t like asking for help, but in my culture, that can be bad. That can lead to mental health issues because we are so used to doing everything on our own. I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help here.”
We then talked about how Nicaragua is more community and family based compared to my experiences back home. Families spend more time together, and they stay together. There’s less mobility. Then we talked about retirement homes. “Sending your parents to a retirement home is wrong. In our culture, you need to honor your parents. My parents live with me and I take care of them”. When he said this, I thought that I wouldn’t expect my kids to take care of me. I would want them to live their own lives, because everyone should be responsible for their own lives. I’m also 24, and the prospect of needing anyone to spoon-feed me oatmeal is so far away.
Then, Alvaro surprised me. “If I were your father, I wouldn’t let you leave the country”, he said. I knew this was how a lot of fathers might feel, but that restricting your daughter’s mobility isn’t okay. “If everyone thought like you, then you wouldn’t have met us”. He grinned. I could tell we were changing his mind. I’d gone from telling him I wasn’t a “muchacha” to having him say “well, if I knew who my daughters were going with, then it would be ok”.
We walked on, our heads filled with thoughts about the canyon, and his head probably filled with thoughts about why women would travel alone. We stopped by a house in a field, and Alvaro greeted the owner. I ate a typical dish of beans and rice, chicken, cabbage, juice, and malanga chips. The malanga chips tasted just like potato chips, but the purple specks on them made them prettier than potato chips. I told the owner that they were my favorite part of the meal.
Our unexpected cross-cultural exchange continued. We talked about work. In Nicaragua, there are many more holidays and festivals than in the states. Businesses close down on Sundays in order to make room for family time. “My Dad worked in Miami. He said that over there, you work as much as one should work. They squeeze everything they can out of you”. Jen and I knew this was true, but she added “But what are we working for?” I told him about how I worked 50 hours a week in Boston to pay for an apartment I was never inside. Weekends for me were just an excuse to lay in bed and watch movies. The workweek was always a constant countdown to Friday. In Nicaragua, I make less than half of what I paid for rent in Boston, but here, I need less to live comfortably.
Alvaro nodded and listened. I enjoyed being able to explore an off-the-beaten-path part of the country I’ve lived in for a year. It was a nice treat to be able to deconstruct what Alvaro thought of the U.S. Yes, we are known to work hard. Yes, we can be independent, but at what cost? Thank you, Somoto Canyon, Alvaro, and Namancambre Tours, for reminding me why I came to live in Nicaragua in the first place: to experience a different culture, and to share my own.
How have you exchanged your cultural viewpoints with someone in an unexpected way?