By New Year’s Eve we had arrived at the Managua airport. Stepping outside at 10:30 pm in the evening we were struck by the heat (75 degrees) and humidity (like a Florida summer). Managua is the lowest part of the country and sits on a lake (the center of which is a volcano). No wonder it felt like a swamp. After a night in the Best Western across the street, we met our chauffeurs for a bus ride up to the mountainous Jinotega. We got on what seemed like a recycled ‘magic bus’ from the 1960’s. What we would notice during the week is that these hippie-like buses are the main form of transportation in Nicaragua. The “highway” leading north was a two lane country road winding through the mountains. The view from the window was extraordinary.
Neighborhood Tour (Sunday and Monday)
Our destination of Jinotega is nestled in the northern mountains. Not long after we arrived at the Outreach360 volunteer house, we were led by the site administrators around the town and neighborhood in which we would be working. The town itself is a city grid, but just off the gravel are dirt roads and hodgepodge slums that make up the neighborhoods. I was immediately struck by the level of poverty. Homes seemed to have been constructed of tin roofs, cement blocks, and recycled materials by their residents. Although I had seen slums on film, being in a developing country for the first time was powerful. Of course, my first glimpse of the slums had come in Managua. I was shocked to see the same style of slums across the street from the Managua airport! I would have thought that an area as commercial as this would be somewhat shielded from poverty. The other feature was the amount of trash along the roads. Although I imagine that trash service covers the city grid, there remains a culture of complacency towards trash. Plastic wrappers, bottles, and banana peels were sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods we toured. It suggested an attitude of dependency—that “someone else would pick it up.”
Cemetery Tour (Sunday)
One of the more beautiful parts of Jinotega is its above-ground cemetery (like New Orleans, Mom said after looking at the pictures). We admired the variety of graves, including one extravagant one memorializing the (relatively) wealthy family that owns the majority of pharmacies in town.
Market Tour (Tuesday)
On Tuesday we went to the central market of Jinotega. We noticed pickup trucks full of large pink sacks being hauled across the main arteries of town. Men in their twenties hoisted the sacks over their shoulders at warehouses. This was our first glimpse of Jinotega’s main economic activity: coffee harvest and production. We were told that we were in the midst of coffee harvest (which runs from November through January). Many young men and women leave Jinotega to live as temporary workers on nearby coffee plantations. Nearly 65 percent of Nicaragua’s coffee production occurs in Jinotega’s province.
The market was bustling after two days of holiday (New Year’s Day and the Monday that followed). Vendors set up hodgepodge stands selling daily produce and goods. Unlike the European markets I had visited, there was virtually no meat, cheese, or seafood being sold. Rather tropical fruits and bulk vegetables were on display, indicative of the low level of wealth in the area. The number of people filling the streets made us privileged Americans a bit vulnerable. We kept our wallets close and maintained a brisk pace.
Coffee Shops (Tuesday and Thursday)
After seeing signs of the production and distribution of coffee at the market, we would make two visits to Jinotega’s best cafes. In addition to tasting the coffee, we were treated to a quality control demonstration. Our host carefully ground the coffee beans and assessed the flavor/after-taste of each sample. The coffee ships to North America and Europe. Given both the American and European obsession with coffee, it was interesting to see one point of its origin.
Catholic Mass (Wednesday)
On Wednesday, we put on our Sunday best and walked to the central cathedral in Jinotega. Spanish words echoed from the altar. A nativity scene with hokey Christmas lights was a bit distracting. Instead of an organ, a guitarist sang folk music. It made for good people watching.
Climbing a Mountain (Thursday)
By Thursday afternoon we had completed our classroom rotation. Now we could enjoy the beautiful sunny weathering by climbing the mountain that had been our backdrop the whole week. Atop one particular peak is a cross, giving the mountain its name, “Peña de la Cruz.” A local guide and two policemen escorted us up the mountain. The ascent took us 45 minutes. Although there was no rock climbing, the path up was steep. At each resting point we admired a higher view of Jinotega. At the top, we encountered two Nicaraguan youths who were even brave enough to sit atop the cross. The blistering wind challenged our balance. I felt a little uneasy posing for picturing fearing a tumble. We also discovered a lake just beyond the mountains that we did not know existed. The descent was perhaps more difficult. I avoided slipping, but with great care.
For picture from my entire Nicaragua trip, see me "Nicaragua 1-1-2012" web album here: https://picasaweb.google.com/114680159976238180294/Nicaragua112012