I don’t do well in the heat. I sweat a lot. I’m pretty sure Nicas have a genetic mutation that allows them to go biking while wearing long sleeve shirts and black slacks without breaking a sweat in the hot sun. Meanwhile, I would appear as if I’d just been super soaked. On the way to Chinandega, my chicken bus slowly warmed up once we descended the cool mountains. I peered around, half asleep and I wondered why no one had cracked open a window yet. Maybe no one wanted to be that jerk who would wake everyone up with an initial gust of wind. It had to be me, so I got up and clicked open my window. Ah, instant relief. I thought of how different these chicken buses were from the megabuses back home, which have wifi, air conditioning, and bathrooms. You get what you pay for, though. If my current ride had all of these fancy amenities, it would cost a lot more than $3 to make the 3-hour-long trip.
We eventually pulled into the bus station and I hopped into a cab. I told my driver that it was my first time. “It’s not that hot!” I said, trying to comfort myself. It was 8 am and it was pretty freaking hot. “No, it’s a nice day”, he replied. In order to survive the day, I needed one thing: the beach. I had never swum in a beach alone, but I just had to go. My driver advised me to take the bus to Corinto, a small beach town nearby. I was excited to explore this new place. I checked into the hotel and met up with my friend Hana. We grabbed smoothies at a local air-conditioned café. As I sipped on my papaya and pineapple smoothie and tried her strawberry one, we caught up on the crazy adventure that is teaching English in this country. We also both were excited about our plans to go home soon, despite how amazing things have been here. She joined me at the supermarket so that I could grab snacks for the beach, and I emerged with a bottle of water and corn chips with lime and salt. We parted ways, and I ended up finishing my beach snack before I even got to the bus station.
I boarded a small van to Corinto and in 15 minutes, we’d arrived at the small fishing town. Apparently at the start of May, there’s a seafood festival that’s a big deal here. I was intent on having some food from the sea. I’d forgotten what it tasted like, since it’s so expensive here. The last time I ate seafood was in September, when I had some lackluster fried fish in León. I boarded a tricycle taxi, which is basically a bicycle hitched to an awning and seats. In front of me sat a plump woman who smiled so much, it’s as if she had no idea that her two front teeth were actually missing. She was visiting her family for the weekend from Managua, and she asked if I was alone. I’ve learned to lie about being alone. I trusted her, but I didn’t trust the driver. Earlier, I asked him how much the ride would be, and he dodged the question. So, I lied and said that a friend from Chichigalpa would be meeting me at the Costa Azul beachside restaurant. The woman didn’t trust the driver either, because when she got out, she looked me and said “Don’t let him charge you more than 10 cordobas (40 cents)! These guys are always trying to rip off tourists”. The driver scowled at her and called her “grañosa” (a grainy woman?), but I waved and thanked her. This was awkward for me, since I was still riding alone with him. As he pedaled on, he lightened the mood by commenting on the warm breeze. The breaks lightly screeched as we pulled up at the restaurant. He tried getting me to think that I couldn’t swim on this rocky beach, but they lady had just told me that I could. “Look at the rocks”, he said. I can take you to a better beach where you can swim. I decided that if this beach didn’t work out, I’d just walk elsewhere.
Yes, there were rocks, but a little farther down, there was a small beach with fishing boats tied up and gently rocking in the water. I hopped through he wet, rocky sand and reached my very own private beach. I worried that someone would take my things, so I just sat on a rock to assess the situation and apply sunscreen. A group of fishermen tied up their boat and went to lunch. Behind me, some young girls were giggling at me from their backyard. “Hello!” one of them yelled at me. Now I at least felt as if I might have someone on my side. They braided each other’s hair as I finally jumped into the cloudy, yet refreshing, water. The fishermen and restaurant clientele stared at me from a distance. They probably wondered what sort of spirit had possessed me to enjoy the beach by myself. I was nervous about swimming too far away from my things, but then I thought “What’s the worst that could happen?”. I only had my $14 phone, $7 in cash, and a camera on me. I’d even put some bills in my pocket to ensure that I could at least take the bus back to the city. Nicaraguan money may look like brightly colored monopoly money, but its surprisingly water proof.
It was so hot that I didn’t even take out my towel. The hot sun dried my body in less than ten minutes each time I took a break from the water to sit on my rock. I eventually left the beach and entered the Costa Azul restaurant. A Peace Corps Nicaragua alum, Katie, recommended this spot to me, since she served in Corinto about a decade ago. She mentioned that “black clam ceviche” awaited me, but I didn’t see that on the menu. There were only mussels in their shells with black sauce. I asked for an order of these with lime, and I asked the waitress why they were black. “Es que así son” (That’s just how they are), she said, shrugging. I was starving, and I only had enough cash on me for the mussels and water (which cost less than $5). I sprinkled lime on the mussels, and they curled up from the acid. The black sauce looked intimidating, but I was so hungry that I knew I wouldn’t be too disappointed. I then added onion to them, and slurped them down while I looked out at the calm ocean and islets. They were much tastier than I’d expected, and I finished the 20 or so mussels in a jiffy.
I told my waitress that I had been nervous about trying the black mussels, but that they were actually really good. It reminded me about how I felt before coming to Chinandega. I was nervous about the heat, but I found a not-so-painful way to deal with it and I ended up being happy that I came. I paid my bill at the register and popped a caramel in my mouth. Instead of dealing with another tricycle driver, I decided to walk to the 10 blocks down the street to the bus terminal. There didn’t seem to be a downtown, just a long street of houses. Families advertised homemade “chocobananos” (frozen bananas dipped in chocolate) and “popsicles” (pronounced “poh-see-clays” on makeshift signs. People lazily sat in their rocking chairs in the shade to rest from the heat. Men, young and old, said “adios, chelita” as I walked by in my practical running hat and elephant print umbrella pants. My presence seemed to be their form of entertainment in this sleepy town.
By the time I returned to the hotel, I was exhausted. Zach dropped off my materials for the two-hour class I’d teach the next day, and I asked him where I could grab a cheap dinner. He recommended that I try a comedor around the corner, and I did just that. When I got there, I stood in front of the glass case of piping hot, steamy food. I told the server that I couldn’t see the food behind the glass, so he wiped off the water droplets with a towel. There were fried plantains, tacos, beans, rice, cheeses, chorizo, and meat patties. I asked for beans, vegetables, meat patties, and I saw something I hadn’t seen before-it looked like a rolled taco that hadn’t been fried. Nicaraguan tacos are like Mexican “taquitos”, which are rolled up and fried. The server explained that this wasn’t a taco. It was a “manuela” with meat. I had no idea what that could be, but it looked like a crepe. I decided to try it anyway. It was just exciting to not know what something was here, since there’s not too much culinary variety here.
I sat down at my table with my heavy plate of food. I dog slept undisturbed right in front of me. I ate a spoonful of beans, and rolled my eyes from the rich, garlicky taste. The “manuela” turned out to be quite a surprise. It tasted like a lightly sweet crepe with shredded beef as well as chunks of cinnamon. It was a delicate balance of sweet and savory that reminded me of the taste of barbeque, but it wasn’t as heavy. Nothing here is as heavy as it is in the states. With my “barriga llena, corazon contenta”, I went to bed at 7 pm. All the traveling and the heat had worn me out. Again, I had trouble sleeping. Not only was music blasting loudly from the street on this loud Saturday night, but my room seemed to be the latest party spot for mosquitoes and ants. My room also felt like a sauna, since opening the window would just attract more critters.
When I woke up at 6, I immediately showered because it felt as if I’d accidentally fallen asleep in a sauna. I ate some pinguino cupcakes and grabbed a cup of coffee in the park. It was so early and I was already breaking a sweat by just walking around in my sundress. I felt as if I were in a video game where I had to find the nearest shade to walk in before melting. I gained energy from the bag of watermelon slices I bought from an old couple. Their friendly spirits also gave me life. It might be freaking hot here, but the people are some of the friendliest I’ve met in this happy country. I was having a much better time than I thought I would have here. Chinandega is more than just that hot, dusty city people like to hate on. It’s a no-frills Nicaraguan city that doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. There aren’t any museums or tourist traps. It’s just a city of Nicaraguans doing their thing, and if you’ll let them, they’ll welcome you with open, sweaty arms.
By 9 am, I’d taken my second shower. Just taking a shower felt as if I were treating myself-that’s how humbling of an experience this has been. Then, I prepped for my lesson by writing my 10 students’ names on chocobanano sticks. I do this with some of my classes to make sure that everyone participates through random selection. It also helps me learn their names and use up less time wondering who to call on next. I took a cab to the school to teach STEP and observed Zach teach for a few minutes. He’s good at bringing people’s attention back to himself after they work in groups. He also did a quick comprehension check that I knew I needed to include in my lesson. I ate lunch with some of the teachers, and by 12:45, we began the lesson. I made it a point to write an agenda on the board along with my expectations. I’m going to do this for my next STEP classes.
I taught the teachers about countable vs. non-countable nouns (i.e. 1 bottle of water vs. water) by talking about superstitions and dreams. It was nice for me to be able to speak in only in English with my students. Too many times, when I try speaking in English to my students, they get so intimidated that they try not to decipher the words I’m saying. Spanish and English luckily have a lot of cognates (words that sound the same in both languages), so this is why teaching English to Spanish-speakers is easier than teaching English to people of other languages that aren’t similar to English at all. I asked them what superstitions they knew about, and they also shared what they dream about. Some of them had violent dreams, or dreams where they are falling. Many of the superstitions in the U.S. and in Nicaragua were similar. I also wrote a list of new words, like a “Clap of thunder”, on the board. I liked this class because they weren’t afraid to ask questions. The teachers had a workshop earlier in the morning, so this is why my lesson went only until 2:30. Usually, I would have to teach STEP all day.
By 3, I was back at my hotel. Unfortunately, it was too late to go to the beach, since transportation is a lot spottier on Sundays. Instead, stopped by a fruit stand, where a woman in an apron sat with her toddler. I picked up a bag of the brightest yellow mango I’d seen so far, and asked her for salt. Her son grabbed a small jar of salt for me, and I sprinkled two teaspoons of the salt in my bag. I thanked them, and the woman said “A la orden, mi amor”. It’s going to be so weird to go back home and not be called “love” by every vendor I come into contact with. For dinner, I went back to the comedor from last night and enjoyed a manuela with cheese. This time, there was another dog sitting in the same spot as the other dog had been in. This time, this dog’s ears perked up and it looked at me, hoping I’d drop something. This food was too good to drop, though, and I finished my plate. I went to sleep insanely early again, because I’d be taking a 5 am bus back home.
By 4:30 am, I was dressed in pants and my flannel shirt. Only in the early morning hours is the weather crisp enough to even think about layering. My cab driver dropped me off at the bus station, and people were piling onto the bus. I ended up sitting in a three-person seat, but ended up sharing it with a grandma and her 3 grandchildren. It was impressive how people can “chinear” (squeeze together) here. As soon as we got back up to the mountains I call home, I felt relieved that cool weather does indeed exist during the day. My time in Chinandega was a lot more pleasant than I’d expected it to be. I can't remember the last time I felt so nervous to visit a this hot place, to eat black mussels, and to swim at the beach by myself, but it all ended up being a great experience. I was happy I'd decided to take on this adventure, but I was also relieved to return to my dear, dear Matagalpa.