Sunday, November 13, 2011

Living in Leon

What an interesting contrast Leon is to San Juan del Sur! No more lazy beaches and narrow, shotgun-style architecture of the small fishing village. Leon is a relatively large city with over 300K inhabitants. It is large, loud, dirty, exciting, and full of life and history. We took the bus almost across the country (from south to north), leaving at 5am from San Juan towards Leon through Managua. One quick taxi ride in Managua to change bus stations cost as much as the entire two bus rides across the country--the public buses are cheap and apparently subsidized: a two+ hour bus ride from Managua to Leon costs maybe $3. We arrived in Leon, taking a pedal taxi to the school where they brought us to our home stay in time for lunch. Carolina is our host mom, living single with two gigantic dogs and lots of friends who come to visit her beautiful colonial house. The colonial-style houses so common in Leon basically consist of a high square wall around the perimeter of the house with a roof sloping inwards towards an inner patio. Most of the rooms, including the living room and kitchen, are open to the patio. From the outside, they are always unassumming, but from the inside quite majestic:

Our bedroom has 15' high ceilings with arched windows and antique furniture. One small window opening (without glass) opens to the street with honking taxis and a bread seller who blurts out an explosive series of "Pan!" as he walks by every morning at 5 and 7am. It's quite striking when the sunbeam shines on us in the morning to wake us up (if the pan man hasn't already).

Our school, also in a beautiful colonial structure, is where we spend the morning in 1:1 lessons until we can't think anymore.

My teacher took me out on a historical and cultural lesson of the city. We may post more information on the fascinating history and mythology of this city later, but for now just a few pictures of some places downtown. The cathedral is supposedly the largest in Latin America. Here it is behind the central plaza:

Leon has a whole culture based around ancient legends specific to the city and to Nicaragua. We visited the museum of legends and mythology of Leon, which was located in the infamous "Carcel 21," a prison where the Somoza dictatorship tortured and killed countless victims until it was overthrown by the Sandanistas in 1979. Interestingly, the American TV show "ghost hunters" apparently did an episode about this location, which is supposedly haunted by the poor souls who perished here. Our guide, one of the language school teachers, had himself been arrested and tortured for taking part in a university demonstration. He later fled to the mountains as a guerrilla sniper for the Sandanista revolution. Anyway, crazy history happened here that the people here still poignantly remember and are very open to share it with you if you are willing to listen. Here is a memorial to the revolution in front of the jail-turned-museum:

Some other common sites around Leon (and all of nicaragua so far) are things like horse-drawn carriages mixed in with the screaming and honking traffic speeding through the streets:

Markets along the cathedral:

OK, so I lied: there are lazy beaches here. It's just that they are a half-hour drive from Leon, so we can't just stroll on them whenever we wish, but it's not exactly that hard to get there. We went to the beach, this time as a school-led activity, and watched the sun set once again into the crashing waves. Unfortunately, we couldn't go into the water because the waves were gigantic and crashed with huge force right into the sandy beach. We waded knee deep, but even like that, you had to be careful because the current was so strong. So here's another sunset picture, in case you missed the ones from our previous posts :-)

This weekend, instead of a guided tour, we opted to go with one of our classmates on a trip to some ruins and to see if we could find a lake we had heard of. Here is a typical bus station in Nicaragua--there are no obvious signs of where to go, so you just have to ask around to figure out when and where your bus will arrive:

The busses are often decorated inside:

We found our way to Leon viejo, the original location of the city of Leon, founded in the 1520s, and later buried in a volcanic eruption, forcing the city to move to its present location further north. In the 1960s they started excavating the city and rebuilding the foundations of the old buildings. It was quite an interesting tour.

So we had heard about this beautiful crater lake, Laguna Asososco, near Leon viejo and we decided to try to get there. Our guide at the ruins told us it's too difficult to get to without a 4wd or knowledge of the complicated streets that don't have directions or signs. We tried anyway. Having asked at a store near the bus stop, I was directed to a guy waiting for the bus who drew us some maps with his finger on the sidewalk and told us he'd have the bus driver drop us off a the intersection where the trail started. He then told us how he was looking for work as a mechanical construction worker at an upcoming geothermal plant, which is one of the big businesses starting up here in Nicaragua. It was fun to be able to talk to some locals and have them so happy to help us find our way. Much different than Tanzania, where they are always trying to get a monetary kickback, whether they get you to the right place or not. So we got dropped off at the trail and walked a couple miles to this other guy's house who charges a little fee to enter his property, which is some kind of a natural preserve as well, and which contains the lake. There was a lookout over the lake on the trail on the way in:

And then after descending a few hundred feet down the jungle-filled crater wall, we jumped into this steamy lake and swam around for a while under the view of an extinct volcano:

And to end on a lighter note, Kate wanted me to take a picture of her under the bimbo sign. Bimbo is a popular bread here, kind of like wonder bread in the US. We had tried to explain to our family in SJDS why we thought that was funny, but it just doesn't translate all that well.

We stopped at a pulperia for a coke while waiting for the bus back to Leon. On the sales counter was chained this extremely cute but nasty-tempered little coati who attacks you if you approach to order or pay for something. I guess you don't need customer service or safety precautions if you are the only place around for miles that sells a lukewarm beverage.

After jumping off one bus and on to another one that was already in motion on its way to Leon, the bus driver insisted that we were on the very last bus to Leon that day. It's funny how stuff has a way of just barely working out over here. There is still so much to do and see here in Leon, but we are satisfied enough with our little adventure this weekend that we may just enjoy strolling through town and taking it easy for a while before we try anything else crazy. In the mean time, we'll be back to classes and homework soon with more school-led afternoon activities around town. Hopefully we'll be back soon with lots more stories about Leon before we start real work


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