We passed through Diriomo, where we passed several houses painted in bright orange, pink, and teal. This is a very poor country, but I appreciate the use of colorful housing. There are no boring suburban houses with white picket fences here, my friends. I asked a man next to us on the bus if he could let us know which stop the “Mercado” (Market) was, and he clarified that it was the last one. It’s always a relief to find out that your destination is the final one, so that you can’t worry about missing your stop. Locals commuting to Granada boarded the bus-they were drenched from the rain. This weather reminded me of home, wherever that is. Sometimes this cloudy, rainy weather reminds me of Seattle, and sometimes it reminds me of Boston. The nice part is that it never dips below 70 degrees.
Right before pulling into the market, a man selling anti-parasitic pills boarded the bus and blew my ears out with his booming voice. He convinced several people on the bus that his pills would cure any stomach ailment, and that his pills for adults and children would be theirs for only 10 cents each. But wait, there’s more! He added that he would also sell vitamin B, a magical supplement that everyone would be crazy not to buy. I expected no one to buy into his obnoxiously loud sales technique, but lo and behold, the passengers wanted in on his remedies. He quickly amassed enough change to encourage his future sales endeavors. I thought of the differences between what people sell in Nicaragua vs. in the U.S. Here, people sell products like meringues, pills, and soda in a bag. In New York City, people riding on the train sell talent: break-dancers, mariachi bands, and soul singers grace the underground in order to make a buck.
We finally arrived at the unassuming mercado, where the muddy earth immediately welcomed my Chaco sandals. Shoppers tossed 40-cent GAP t-shirts around in the clothing bins, hoping to catch one in their size. “Que busca, mi amor?” (what are you looking for, love?), was a common utterance from shopkeepers. The sights and sounds overwhelmed me at first, just as I had felt in the shopping mall last week in Managua. Men sold shiny new watches, and women sold crates and crates of boxer briefs and tank tops. I had hoped I could find a cheap new fedora hat to buy, since I had left mine by accident in Rivas last month, but deep down I knew what I would be spending my money on today: Food. American food. Yes, I said it.
I asked an unoccupied security guard where the Cathedral was, and he pointed to his left. Granada felt like any other Nicaraguan town, only with bigger stores and with more weary backpackers in search of a shower. We arrived at the Parque Central, and I felt as if I were in Mexico. It reminded me of León, Mexico’s main plaza, with its Spanish-style arches supporting the restaurants’ facades. The bright-yellow Cathedral was by far the prettiest I’d seen. It’s fresh coat of paint made all the difference. While we waited for Raquel to meet us, men immediately approached us to sell us things. A small boy came right up to me and placed a flower made of folded banana leaves in my hand, saying “It’s a present, no problem”. I thanked him but returned it to him, telling him that he could make money from this elsewhere. Next time this happens I will tell them to go study so that they can have a better future, or give them some math problems. That’s what Raquel would have done.
We had some time to kill, so we walked to the artisan stalls where the vendors immediately spoke to me by using the “tu” form of Spanish (used by my family in Mexico) instead of the “vos” form (used by those of many other Latin American countries). This implied that she knew I was a tourist from another Spanish-speaking country. There were no fedoras to be found. I’ll find one soon enough. We met up with Raquel in the park. I was so happy to see her because she reminded me of who I am outside of the Peace Corps. I love my job, but it’s definitely one of those all-consuming occupations that make you easily forget about your passions outside of your work. We went to Kelly’s waffle house for breakfast, where American and European expatriates poured maple syrup onto their pancakes. The place was pretty crowded. We waited outside for 5 minutes and were shown inside. After glancing at the menu, I became overwhelmed at the variety of choices. Should I try the bacon pancakes? Bacon and eggs? A bacon omelet? I went with the omelet because I’d seen the size of one as I walked in. On my way to wash my hands, I passed by the kitchen and felt unusually happy to see plain sticks of butter and eggs ready to sizzle on the grill. While I am lucky enough to have my host family cook every meal for me, I realized how much I missed cooking breakfast.
Our platters arrived, and a gawked at my 3-egg omelet with crispy slabs of bacon inside, home fries, and a huge slice of whole-wheat Texas toast. This was my second breakfast, but it was no challenge at all. I’m usually hungry again by 10 AM anyway, so this was perfect. We caught up in between bites potatoes, eggs, papaya, and Creole (white) pineapple. I slathered the last half of my toast with guayaba jelly and savored every bite. Luckily, many places here take U.S. dollars, so I was able to use up the last of my U.S. money that I had brought with me from D.C. in August. I paid about $6 for my meal, which is cheaper than one would be in IHOP, but for Nicaraguan and Peace Corps standards, I was living large. This was already half of my weekly stipend, hence why I asked for an ice water instead of a coffee. Raquel asked us if we’d tried “buñuelos”. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t been so lucky as try these doughy fried yucca balls with cheese and syrup. Hopefully, we could find some after having digested America in our stomachs.
All we did was eat and walk, and it was glorious. We walked down Granada’s most touristic street, “La Calzada”, which boasts international restaurants and hotels owned by multi-ethnic couples. We entered a bakery owned by a couple from Quebec and Venezuela. The Quebecois showed us his scrumptious array of banana and carrot bread, as well as cinnamon rolls and chocolate chip cookies. Simple things, really, in the states, but treasures to be had in this country. One cannot simply walk into any grocery store and obtain these. It’s a developing country, for crying out loud. The hotels had impressive courtyards, as well. After living in a humble, unpretentious town for two months, I had low standards for architecture. We passed by a hotel courtyard and I immediately scurried inside with my camera to take photos of the graffiti-free fountain and elegant floral arrangements. Just as I get too excited after entering large grocery stores, I too, get overly excited about courtyards. This is what my adulthood has come to. I laughed at myself as we exited and walked toward Lake Managua.
After having stopped at the gorgeous yet moldy-smelling Hotel Granada, we stopped to take a peak at a boys’ baseball game in the field. They couldn’t have been older than ten years old. The batter waved his bat in anticipation of his home run, but the pitcher took his time. After about 20 seconds of deliberation, he threw the ball too far to the right of the batter, and the catcher lunged into the dirt to dramatically catch the ball in mid-air. These kids were into their game. As this happened, the three of us chatted about our career paths. All of us work as teachers, yet we clearly share a passion for travel. Why hadn’t I taken the tourism route instead of education? We reasoned that while it may be great to be paid to travel, we would be concerned with losing sight of our passion for social justice. As a semi-idealistic feminist in my twenties, I just want to help others and inspire them to love learning. Education was an incredible tool for social mobility for me. I clearly wouldn’t have had the privilege to teach in Nicaragua if this weren’t the case.
We eventually reached the lake, and the drizzle dissipated to a mist. Boaters approached us with offers to take us to the nearby isletas for the day, but the sky wasn’t clearing up. Others followed us, offering to negotiate the price of a kayaking trip to the lake. No one was swimming in the water, and pieces of garbage littered the shoreline. People don’t really swim in this part of the lake because it’s so contaminated. It was still a gorgeous site to see, as the lake is large enough to disguise itself as an ocean. The majestic Mombacho Volcano sat in the distance to the right, playfully shrouded in clouds. It seemed as if it didn’t want to reveal itself to us just yet. It was barely noon and we needed to be patient.
We later meandered through the abyss that was the indoor market. Sometimes, I didn’t know what I was stepping in. I’ll just call it “mystery mud” for now. Vendors sat next to their huge sacks of rice, beans, and plastic bags encasing baby lemons. Some parts smelled like tortilla, and others smelled like fish. It was getting hot and sunny. We tried grabbing a fresco from a lady Raquel trusts, but she had disappeared. Her buñuelo lady was missing in action as well, so we decided to get a drink at a nearby restaurant. It was happy hour from 12-7, so I ordered a Macuá, the “national drink of Nicaragua” that my host family and Nica friends have never heard of. It’s made up of guyaba and orange juice, lime, and the pride and joy of Nicaragua, the Flor de Caña rum. It tasted as if someone had just been impatiently waiting for happy hour and decided to spike his or her can of Goya guayaba juice instead. It was very sweet, so I followed it with a Toña beer.
We shared some nachos and chatted about the things that travelers would talk about. I learned about Raquel’s travels to Morocco, and the ways in which she described the hammams, or bathhouses, made me want to visit one. It’s interesting to think of how Islamic countries encourage women to cover their bodies in the presence of men, but when it comes to bath houses, women are expected to be fully naked in this social space. That way, women are used to seeing women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes, and it’s not a big deal. Nudity in the U.S. is a taboo. Moroccan women don’t suffer as many body image issues as American women might, since spaces like the bathhouses normalize the appearances of different body types. In the U.S., we are used to seeing media portrayals of naked women mostly as models who are paid to look that good. I also learned that in countries like Japan, one couldn’t even enter a bathhouse if one has a tattoo, due to the prevailing idea that if one has a tattoo, one is involved in a gang.
Since we wouldn’t be spending the day riding bicycles through the city as anticipated, the next step was obvious. We needed to get dessert. Raquel took us to the Chocolate Museum, where I had anticipated a Willy-Wonka type factory, with a flowing river and gnomes hastily stirring cauldrons of chocolate. “It’s just a room, guys”, Raquel assured me. We walked in and the place smelled like shampoo and chocolate. We ended up asking for samples of the chocolate. I took a piece of real milk chocolate that looked like dirt, and it tasted pretty bitter. I wasn’t a fan until I tasted the Cocao tea, which tasted like delicious hot chocolate without the powdered cream additive. Since it wasn’t exactly 100 degrees outside, drinking hot tea was perfectly normal to me. We then went to the back of the hotel, where gringos lounged around the bright blue pool. We climbed to the balcony, where we snapped pictures of the Cathedral’s bright red dome. This city reminded me of the week in April I spent in Sevilla, Spain, but with volcanoes and without the clouds of pollen that provoked my incessant sneezing. By now, Mombacho’s blanket of clouds had almost completely fallen off. “Baa…baa!” bleated a goat next door. The sun beat down on us, further accentuating my sandal’s criss-crossed tan lines on my feet. I found out that the hotel offered complimentary massages to its guests. A 30-minute massage was only $12 for non-guests. I want to bring my friends and family here when they visit.
We retreated from the heat to a famous Gelato shop on the Calzada, owned my an Italian man and his French wife. The husband makes the gelato from scratch, and his cheerful wife attends the wide-eyed, salivating customers like myself. I tried the passion fruit flavor, which was too sweet, and then the caramel flavor. I had to go with the small scoop of nutella, though. Peanut butter is enough of a luxury here, but nutella? You can’t play around with that. I wanted to chat with the woman in French for a bit, but before I knew it, a troupe of French ladies stormed in to converse with her. I missed listening to French. We sat in the back and continued sharing stories. I sat in the hammock-style chair that dangled a three inches from the ground, but it was fine because I could swing around in them. My chair was colored in red, white and blue, as the French flag is, and Raquel sat in the Italian-flag hammock. I felt so relaxed after having enjoyed every spoonful of gelato. Soothing Portuguese lyrics of a Cape Verdean singer filled the space. I wanted to stay forever, but it was already time for us to catch the bus back.
We arrived just in time to catch the last bus home, and it was only 4:53 PM. One’s day starts earlier here, and it ends earlier. This trip reminded me that you can find nice things in Nicaragua, like gelato and massages. I also enjoyed seeing Raquel before she left. I look up to her because she is passionate about education and traveling, and has flawlessly incorporated both into her career path. It also reminded me that this country may be as small as New York State, but there is still so much waiting for me to see. My final thought is this: I came into Granada hoping to make a comparison between this city and León, the rivaling touristic city, but my conclusion was a no-brainer. León, Nicaragua is great, but there’s no place like Granada.