Friday, March 25, 2016

Spring Break (2/23-2/25) Granada and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (How we renewed our visas. Legally.)

On the twenty third I got up at four fifteen. It was awful, but the bus left from the parking of what was, less than a week ago, Johnny's at five and I needed to be awake enough not to forget anything. I grabbed cereal, wolfed down two pieces of sweet bread and stuck two apples in my pockets. Then grabbed my duffle bag and back pack and headed for the Nicaraguan border. I am here on a tourist visa which only lasts for ninety days as student visas for Costa Rica are for all for years. It's totally legal, don't worry. But we needed to leave the country for a few days before we could come back in for the second part of our program. The drive to the boarder took about four hours, we went from cloud forest all the way down to dry forest. I'll come back to that later but just so you know, the dry forest is a very different life zone. Very different.

We hit the border at around ten, having stopped for a quick breakfast at around eight where we lost an hour. The boarder is actually two boarders, one where you leave Costa Rica and one for entering Nicaragua. It wasn't terrible. It was just bureaucratic nonsense which had us stopped at the Nicaraguan side for two hours in the baking sun as we got permits for the bus. It's apparently a very good spot to sell cheap touristy items as there were stalls set up all along the edge of the parking lot and several people were carrying their wares around on their shoulders. It was a bit much after the comparatively mellow Costa Rica but not too bad. It was hot though and we had to exit the bus for the entire time we were being registered. I confess that I spent time hiding in the shadows of other group members. (I burn people, I'm pretty pale skinned.) I got laughed at for it, but no one really minded.

Once we were cleared to enter the country we piled back into the bus and spent the next two hours staring at Lake Nicaragua and the multitude of wind turbines along its banks. Hundreds of them towering to the sky, I hadn't ever seen this many before and I was thrilled. (And annoyed. We could do this if we wanted, but that's not really and argument I want to get into right now.) We arrived in Granada a bit after noon and checked into our rooms at hotel 'Con Coarzon'. It's a nonprofit hotel that donates all proceeds to charities for children and the disabled. It is lovely and I would absolutely recommend staying there. It has a pool, beautiful rooms and is very close to a large square full of music, parades (it is getting close to holy week and people in Nicaragua take their religion very seriously), and street vendors. It was great. The first afternoon we all went and got food together, paying with dollars as we hadn't found a ATM yet. The food was good and relatively inexpensive. We spent the afternoon shopping at the tiny street market. I didn't actually buy anything but I spoke with a bunch of people in Spanish which was great. For dinner, I and two girls from our group went to the restaurant right next to where we had lunch. The food was even better this time, I had a really spicy chicken dish with chips, salsa and guacamole. I'd forgotten how much I missed spicy food until that night. We headed back just in time to catch the other part of the group and recommend the restaurant to them. The three of us watched half of Stardust (which is a great movie if you like fantasy adventure) before crashing.

The next day we actually split into our dinner groups, not intentionally but it just worked out like that, and my group went to explore the city while the other part went on a kayaking trip on Lake Nicaragua. Granada is gorgeous. All the buildings are brightly painted, the churches tower to the sky and every where you look Spanish, Mexican, Arabic and Western styles blend together into something new and beautiful. We found a cathedral with a tall tower that we climbed, which was an experience in itself as the stairs were first a tight spiral and then a set of floating stairs, up to the top from where we could see the whole city. It is lovely, lovely, lovely. The inside of the cathedral is nothing to sneeze at either. Stained glass windows, statues around every corner and paintings everywhere you looked. The front of the church was being redone but it was still beautiful. From there we wondered down the streets, looking for a place to eat lunch and gosh all mighty did we make a good choice. It was kind of strange, but we stumbled across a small Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Granada called Pita Pita. It advertised as vegan friendly and as one of our group was vegan, the other lactose free and I don't eat red meat, we decided it was probably our best choice. We were right. The restaurant is gorgeous, the seats are comfortable, the atmosphere pleasant, there is a small central garden with a lovely fountain that cools the whole place and, best of all, the food it to die for. I got a tasting plate for two (I was hungry and it was an appetizer, sue me) which included hummus, stuffed grape leaves, fresh goat cheese and baba ganouch. I have never had baba ganouch that good before. Sorry mom. If you are ever in Granada, go to this restaurant. It is so very worth it.

After lunch, we walked down to the beach at Lake Nicaragua, which was view-able from a slightly raised overlook. It was interesting as I'm used to beaches being occupied by tourists, not cows. But to each their own. The area was very nicely built but deserted. It was really interesting as the rest of the city was relatively hopping. Oh, I would also like to say that cat-calling is very much a thing here and that the fake kissing sound, sounds like spitting and is just gross. What would your mother say.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, but I did make a quick stop at the market to buy some earrings for my friends and family. They better like them, I did. I wrote in my journal and psudo-napped until dinner, when my three person group went back to the restaurant. I got a lava cake, baba ganouch and a margarita. It was just as good as I remembered. We finished Stardust that evening and, probably due to the heat, crashed again.

The nest day we, sadly, left Granada for San Juan del Sur, which is a VERY touristy beach town. We made some stops along the way, the first at a pottery shop that does hand made pottery in a traditional style. We got a tour and a demonstration which was fun. They use pottery wheels, but powered by their feet, it was awesome to watch. After, I bought a pot and a candle holder I adored and know I will use. Now I don't have to clean my mothers sliver ones every time I make pysanky! The town is on the edge of a large crater lake that has serious winds coming across it. We almost got blown over several times! (We would have gone over for real if we hadn't been used to the trade winds coming over the mountains in Monteverde every day and I do mean every day.) We had lunch and headed down to the coast. I honestly didn't like San Juan del Sur. I'm not a huge beach town person and really don't like tourist traps and this place was both. Also, it was kinda skeevy. I'm almost certain I saw an old American (yes, I may be stereotyping, but he looked it) man with a barely legal (if even) local girl who, I feel terrible saying, was probably a prostitute. Which says so much more about the man and the town than about her. I took a walk on the beach which was kinda nice and then headed back to the hotel which was OK. There was a very offensive mural painted on the wall of the hotels restaurant that just got worse the longer you looked at it. I basically just wanted to leave the entire time we where there, which was thankfully less than twenty-four hours. Dinner wasn't bad, we got pizza, but it wasn't great either. The hotel staff were nice but I just didn't like the feeling of being a white female tourist in that town.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Semana siete/week seven (2/14-2/22) Monteverde, Costa Rica

This week was more of 'lets get stuff done before you go on vacation' than anything. We had papers due, a midterm and two brand new long-term assignments. I can't complain, it's got nothing on the one week last semester where I had two labs, two tests, seven hours of homework and an oral exam. That was rough. Anyway, midterm was on Thursday and, like all tests, it was stressful. It was actually 20% of my grade so I really hope I did well. And that my professor is willing to give partial credit. The first paper due was actually a proposal for my final project in my Tropical Ecology course. It wasn't hard and was actually really fun to write. My project got approved, just FYI. It's on ant behavior. I am very excited. The other paper was a single page on Solanaceae, or the Nightshade family. That was actually really fun to write too as many of my favorite foods are in that family. Eggplant for one, tomatoes and, of course, potatoes. (And now I really want to cook) The second long term assignment is kind of a roll-play negotiation simulation. It's gonna be so much fun. I am kind of the bad-guy in it, in that I represent the coffee farmers who are polluting the river with the cherries from their beans. Fortunately I have the perfect solution and with a bit of maneuvering, I am sure things will all work out as I planed. I am really looking forward to this, can you tell?

We didn't have any field trips this week, we're saving all that for the next week where we are going to be running around the country visiting national parks. But I started my final project for Tropical Ecology! Actually I started my project, seriously revised my methodology and they tried again. It worked the second time but the first had me sitting in the damp for an hour staring at a piece of fruit in honey for an hour while nothing happened. The second time was much more fun and had results that support my hypothesis! Which I don't feel like reveling. It has to do with ants, that's all I will say. I also visited the Monteverde Reserve with one of the other students who is doing her Tropical Ecology project on hummingbirds and needed a hand taking data at the feeders they have up there. We saw Purple-throated Mountain-gems, Violet Sabrewings, Green Violet Ears, Green-crowned Brilliants, Coppery-headed Emeralds and Magenta Throated Woodstars. It was wonderful. There were more than one hundred of them, swooping past us like we didn't exist. The Mountain-gems were especially bold and more than once one stopped inches from my face and hovered for a few seconds, I think trying to figure our whether I was a flower and if so where my nectar was. I didn't get impaled by any beaks so clearly upon closer inspection I do not resemble a flower. Mores the pity.

We did visit Bajo del Tigre again for a Tropical Ecology lab. We counted visitation of pollinators to the flowers there. It was interesting in that the subject is fascinating and we were outside but I had about three pollinators visit my plant in two hours. But the plant was covered in ants. So I counted ants for two hours. Also saw a squirrel cuckoo again! That was exciting. It actually does act like a squirrel, it hops from tree to tree and does a weird flip with its tail to stay balanced.

That afternoon I went to a local Soda (a tiny restaurant, locally owned) called El Pollo (chicken) for lunch with one other girl in my group. We talked, bought pastry before hand and generally enjoyed the delicious food. I had been wanting to go there since we had arrived but hadn't had the opportunity. I had chicken, salad and a tortilla topped in a really spicy pickled sauce. It was delicious. As it turned out, we were lucky that we went when we did because not three days later the restaurant burned down. It was a bit of a shock to walk past it on my way to the Institute and see a smoking ruin where I had enjoyed lunch a few days before hand. It really is too bad, they had excellent food. It was actually attached to a larger restaurant that was where the fire started. It was called Johnny's and I never really felt inclined to eat there, too touristy.