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On the Rooftop Terrace, Life Is Beautiful

October 29th, 2012 No comments

Or at least my every experience up there seems to suggest as much.

It was in back in Cusco that I first began to take advantage of something that I’m, well, kinda surprised that I hadn’t taken advantage of before: a first rate, live-in private yoga instructor.  I’ve always known that I liked Tracy’s style of yoga instruction (my attendance of her class constitutes the first five months of our knowing one another, after all), but for some reason I never thought to request private lessons in earnest since those early days.

In our chilly living room in Cusco my occasional yoga class was nice, but in the ambiance of the setting sun amid blazing orange cloud formations, just above the tree line and with gentle summery breezes, my private instruction on the Vista Mochambo rooftop seemed down right decadent, the perfect way to unwind after a hard day at the (cafe) office.  Tracy even saw to bringing up yoga tunes by way of her well placed Mac book, and indulged my desire to weave in Push-upTober activity just before sitting stretches and shavasana1.

The rooftop terrace was also my preferred place to write this month.  With great regularity in this apartment I wake with the light of dawn at around 5:30am.  This is no time to futz around in our partitioned studio apartment, for Tracy still sleeps like a normal person with normal person hours.  So what works beautifully is to grab a banana and a sweet roll, tote my laptop up the spiral staircase, and sit back in one of those folding chairs that features a hammock-like weave for the seat and back.  Palm trees and glowing grey skies that soon enough give way to brilliant sunlight make inspired companions for hammering out prose.

One morning Tracy came to join me brandishing coffee and breakfast, including potatoes and chorizo cooked just right2.  Another morning she came with news of our being accepted to house sit Mustard over the holidays.

Mustard is the dog of a lovely couple in Sydney, a pair who would be spending two and a half weeks out of the country and in need of someone to take care of their house and beloved dog while away.  We’d been looking into house sitting gigs a bit this month, and were recently a little bummed to have missed out on a great-sounding one in Perth.  (We’d made the finalist circle culminating with an interview over Skype, but ultimately weren’t picked, possibly because they had a pool and I’d never really taken care of one before.)  So after that minor disappointment, news that we were in fact sorted for an Australian house sitting job for the holidays was most welcome.

So the rooftop terrace was a very happy place indeed.  The only downside, as is often the cliche with this sort of ode, is having to say goodbye to it.  Yesterday was our last full day in Granada, and we made it count starting by taking our landlord out to breakfast at Kathy’s Waffle House.

Glenn again regaled us with tales, this time including a more detailed telling of how three for three wives of an unsavory real estate agent in town all happened to meet with tragic death, the third of which was Kathy of the waffle house namesake (parenting tip that probably generalizes pretty well: even if he would probably be a good provider, don’t marry off your 19 year old daughter to a 70-year-old who has had two similarly young wives die untimely deaths).

On our walk back I asked Glenn if he might show me the ropes for pool maintenance, figuring that ability might come up again in our now-burgeoning house sitting career.  Four delightful hours later I had a wealth of knowledge and hands on experience about cleaning, filtering, and chemical balancing a pool.  There was even time for lessons on plumbing and sewage systems, water pressure equalization, fail-safe water storage and dispersal mechanisms, and a few Tona’s.  Glenn played the sensai to my grasshopper beautifully, explaining things and quizzing me as we went.

My training in pool maintenance (and then some) was even more fun than when he had Tracy and I over for a barbeque the week before and his oven exploded3, and it makes me happy to call him my Nicaragua Pappy.

Our last meal in town was at El Camello, a restaurant by a Canadian fellow serving Middle Eastern cuisine.  It turns out by this time that even though Nicaraguan food was pretty agreeable, we were by this time quite saturated on gallo pinto (the national dish of red beans and rice mixed together) and its usual accompaniments: tortillas, plantains, and chicken.  A good meal from an entirely distinct culinary vocabulary had us leave Granada on a pleasant note, and reminded us it was time to mix things up once again.

This morning we awoke at 3am, and our timely chariot arrived at 3:30 ready to take us the hour’s drive into Managua for our 5am bus on to El Salvador by way of Honduras.  Technically we’ve visited two new countries today, but our drive by passport stamping for Honduras doesn’t count for any traveler street cred.

Tomorrow we aim to earn some here, during our (slightly) less fleeting visit through El Salvador.

Notes:

  1. “Push-upTober was my answer to Tracy’s now 3rd annual “Omtober”, an October month in which Tracy does an hour of yoga practice every day.  Push-upTober, then, was my daily discipline of doing, well, a bunch of push-ups.  I started at 15 push-ups a day (single set), and wanted to work up to 45.  You can see how I did as tracked by my spiffy coaching software in the graph just above.
  2. No trivial matter for a vegetarian–let it be said that when you’re as strongly carnitarian as I am, there still needn’t be any sacrifice in being wed to a vegetarian.
  3. The pilot light went out and Glenn carelessly turned it back on without venting the accumulated gas.  I had my head in the fridge at the time, grabbing some beers.  Singed hairs on the back of my legs is my only souvenir, and Glenn was similarly mostly unscathed.  A good start from a loud boom was our main takeaway.
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Coffee Farms and Other Magical Places

October 25th, 2012 No comments

Life quickly settled into a nice groove at Vista Mochombo.

I fast became a regular at the Euro Cafe, a place which I dubbed my office for the month.  If World Tour is in any way about celebrating simple joys in many far off places (and it is), then the courtyard of the Euro Cafe is an exemplary bit of the whole premise.  A quaint, round metal table to myself, baristas who knew my name, a varied and tasty menu, and a strong internet connection all made it a delight.  For ambiance a fountain & lush tropical vegetation comprised the view above my laptop, drenched in sunlight pouring in through the open air construction.

Some mornings I would start there with breakfast, or a tropical fruit smoothie, or just the fresca del dia.  Around lunch time I’d walk to the counter at the front, order something off the menu, and have it brought to “my desk” minutes later.  At the end of the day, sometime between 3 and 5pm, I’d pick out a sweet treat to munch on the way home and/or share with Tracy.  This day of camping and grazing in lovely surroundings would cost somewhere around $10US when I settled up on my way out.

After a hard day at the office I would do something that I vividly remember my dad doing when I was a child: go home and jump in the pool with the wife.  Save for the floatation device and scotch on the rocks, I think I emulated his style pretty well.  Dad, I always figured that was cool, and now I totally get the appeal.

Tracy and I would float about, catch up on our day, and generally talk about the state of our life while staring up at gorgeous sunset-time cloud formations and the lush vegetation.  As you might imagine given the surroundings, the regular consensus was that the state of life was quite good.

We got to inject some adventure and variety into this groove mid-month, when serendipity granted us a rare and fantastic opportunity.  My brother-in-law (or is he my second brother-in-law, as the guy who married my wife’s sister?) Jason would be in Nicaragua for a few days, working to design and scope out a philanthro-travel tour with the good people of Project Cure.  Jason owns a coffee roastery and his company does direct trade with a farmer in Nicaragua, and his company is doing a project called CURE Coffee (basically, through a collaboration with Project Cure, profits from the sale of his coffee from this region go towards medical and humanitarian relieve back to the region).

All of this is to say that Jason was kindly enough to allow Tracy and I to tag along with the entourage for the trip.  We got to see the rolling mountainous regions of the Nicaraguan country side, ride in the back of a truck while touring the hilly and beautiful expanse of the Santa Fe coffee farm (straight and monotonous rows of monoculture it ain’t–this was some seriously varied vegetation!), attend a meeting at the mayor’s office of Jinotega, visit the two clinics that would be the soon-beneficiaries of this charitable collaboration, and learn yet more of the process by which coffee goes from red little cherries to the roasted beans we all know and love when we wandered about a coffee dry mill.

The trip was amazing, and a constant delight.  I’ll be brief on the account for the beauty of it more pictorial in nature, so go check out Tracy’s coverage.

While we’re on the subject of magical, beautiful places, another location punctuated our existence of tropical apartment living bliss, and that was Laguna de Apoyo.  Laguna de Apoyo is a circular lake formed by a hollowed out volcano, some 6km across and stunningly pristine.  Lush vegetation abuts its whole circumference and from a distance what few buildings reside near are invisible, crowded over by the green growth.  Our first visit was with landlord Glenn, who was in general a really good sport about showing us around (the sentence “Papa Glenn is taking the kids out for a field trip” captures the essence of his invitations quite well1).  From a high lookout point we took in the view while downing a round of Tona’s, Nica’s local and preeminent beer.  At my beckoning Glenn was sharing stories from his most interesting life.

Glenn’s lived in Nicaragua the last 11 years with his wife, and it turns out did the whole architectural design of the lovely 1o-unit apartment complex in which we are currently residing.  He got his start as a more-than-just-vacationing presence in Central America while on vacation in Jamaica, there with his then girlfriend who told him he was working too much, and needed to take a vacation with her and leave work behind.

It was the 80s, and he was locksmith.

It started with helping a fellow resort guest unlock his fancy luggage (“the maintenance guy with a hammer can do it in 2 seconds or I can do it in 2 minutes, and if you can spare the time you might like the state of your $1000 leather luggage better when I’m done with it than when he is”).  After that a few guys on the maintenance crew invited Glenn to geek out over locksmithing challenges in the onsite shed a few times  (quite the thing to have to sneak away from the girlfriend for), dallying which ultimately culminated in a job for Glenn to rekey the whole property.

One thing led to another, as Glenn recounts it, and before long he was the “international expert” locksmith, designing and implementing new lock systems for resorts all over Jamaica, and his life as a business man outside of the US was well underway (incidentally he eventually broke up with his girlfriend).

In the present day Glenn, among other things, buys property now and then when good opportunities arise, and builds them up nicely as rentals like the one Tracy and I are now enjoying.  He’s also writing a book of stories about what it’s like to build in the third world, which, if his stories told in person are any indication, I look forward to reading (Glenn: sorry if my recounting of Jamaica is a sloppy rendition of one of your earlier chapters, and apologies for any spoilers!).

With views, beers, and stories of an interesting fellow our first visit to Laguna de Apoyo was pleasant enough, but taken in from a great distance.  Our second visit was with our kickin’ trio of neighbors, Katie, Kelly and Chris, and was a more hands on experience.  This time we packed swim suits and made our way to the Monkey Hut, a little resort nestled right by the water.  For six bucks you can get a day pass and enjoy their dock access to the clear and refreshing, bath-like waters of the lake, mill about onsite and order beers & have lunch, and grab a one-man kayak whenever.

While our party kayaked about my favorite activity was to fling myself over the side of my kayak and just swim.  I’m a tall dude, but the deep blue waters of the lake were clear enough that I and any onlooker could clearly see my toes outstretched those 6.5 feet beneath the surface of the water.  Did I mention the water was nice and warm?

As we lounged about off the end of the dock, floating in inner tubes, we saw them filming the closing scene of an episode of House Hunters International (if you’ve ever seen the show, you know the formula: “Well honey, which one should we pick?”  “I like number 2 the best.” “I like that one too–yay, let’s get that one!” Hug, walk off camera holding hands).  So at the risk of ruining the magic for you, the next time you see the end of an episode know that it probably took them a couple of takes to get it, and that someone off camera probably had to remind them “You just picked which house you’re going to buy… this is exciting, get excited!”.

Disillusionment of the process aside, we were happy to keep our voices down and not mess with their shoot.

Throw in a largely unremarkable yet well appreciated lunch and that was our day visit to the Monkey Hut–score a few more points for Laguna de Apoya!

Just another week here in Nicaragua… lordy, is it time to uproot again already?  I’d be bummed if I weren’t so excited about where we’re going next!

Note:

  1. Our first weekend I took Glenn up on his invitation to go to the massive market in Managua.  This visit ,amid a few other errands, ran over my expectations by about 4 hours, but at least I got to see cop corruption and bribery in action on the way home.  Our car was pulled over for, apparently, not abiding by the correct lanes through a roundabout.  100 Cordoba, or about $4US, was all it took to settle the matter on the spot.  “Collecting lunch money” was the phrase used to describe the situation.
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Underwhelmed in San Juan Del Sur

October 4th, 2012 No comments

We were so certain we would dig Nicaragua’s central surf hub.

Numerous people had raved to us about their time there, usually centered around some manner of yoga and/or surf retreat.  It seemed to be the gem of the country, the one place to go if you only had one to pick.

And yet after our quite smooth journey in from Ometepe (having done our previously-mentioned route in to Merida, the bus ride/ferry ride/taxi ride/2nd bus ride out to San Juan seemed a non-event), our impressions of the town were surprisingly underwhelming.  Surprising not just for the consistently rave reviews, but also because for literally months we’d been telling people–as part of our account of anticipated World Tour features–that Nicaragua would be mainly a month in San Juan with a place near the beach where we’d learn how to surf.

I’ve reported that factoid so many times my imagination is well primed with images of what it would look like.

We arrived in the afternoon, got settled in a cheap hostel as a base for our explorations & apartment hunting, and proceeded to explore and apartment hunt.  The beach was lovely, yes, but littered with the usual cadre of overpriced and (reportedly) mediocre restaurants.  It turns out there was no surfing in the horseshoe-shaped bay on which San Juan is located, it’s all to be found at beaches 10 or more minutes to the north or south.  This means that surfing, rather than be a “hey let’s go walk to the beach and surf!” sort of affair, was instead more destined to be more like chaperoned events (hire a cab or sign up for a bused excursion, plan the return in advance, pay around $10 per person each time).

So 20 minutes of recon revealed a highly developed touristy beach and surfing logistics that were way less appealing than the rosy picture lodged in my brain.  How about the apartment hunting?  Internet searches revealed only fancier, pricier, on-vacation-for-just-a-week-and-don’t-mind-a-splurge type options.  Lovely for sure, but not right for us for us trying to settle in for a month and live.  So we hit the streets looking for “Se alquilar apartamente” signs around.

What we found was on the other end of the spectrum: options from $200-300 for a month, essentially having us move into someone’s home while they would go crash elsewhere for the month.  Or some windowless bunker that kinda resembled a perhaps high-end prison cell.  Budget friendly for sure, but also not right for us trying to settle in for a month and live.

We sought a middle ground, and despaired to not find it in San Juan1.  But we didn’t sulk for long.  Though we’d be reneging on the forecast we’d given countless times, we remembered we had every right to remix our plans when the contemplated ones proved ill-fated.

Finding a nice apartment to live and surf in San Juan proved ill-fated, so we were going to remix our October plan.

I really liked Granada, much more than the beach front party environment of San Juan, so I took to googling “granada nicaragua apartment rental” to see what we might find there.  After Craigslist and AirBNB, result #3 was granadahomerental.net.  One click from there brought me to Vista Mochambo, a 10-unit apartment complex featuring hammocks, a pool, a rooftop terrace, banana trees growing in the courtyard, and well appointed everything.  All but the biggest unit were $550 a month.

Now that’s a middle ground worth usurping incumbent plans for.

The website clearly stated “These are all long term rentals from six months or more.” followed immediately by “However EXCEPTIONS can be made but there will be no overnight or weekly rentals.”  Would our bid to up the owner’s occupancy by 10% for the month of October be well received?  I wasted no time to find out.  Using my spiffy Google voice account I dialed the proprietor’s Austin-based phone number.

The kindly and paternal voice of Glenn greeted me on the other end of the phone.  I introduced myself, let him know of mine and Tracy’s underwhelm with San Juan, and told him if he’d be open to making an exception for a one-month stay, we’d be happy to be his guest for the current month and could get ourselves there tomorrow.  Our offer was well received, immediately making me glad I’d mustered the audacity to propose a stay term 1/6th the prescribed norm.

Glenn turned out to be fantastically hospitable, even in just the way he outlined the process for getting us settled in.  “Just give me a call when you get to Granada and I’ll come pick you up, we’ll go to the store first so you can stock up your fridge and pantry.  Don’t worry about getting your own sheets, we’ve got a spare set and will have it all set for your stay.”

The experience of being thoroughly handled upon arrival is welcoming indeed.  Excited that our bust of a visit to San Juan had morphed into a really nice setup in Granada (I mean, did you click the link above?), Tracy and I retired for the night.

The next day our transition went off without a hitch, even the legitimate hitch that presented itself was a delight: the power was out in Granada.  It went out that morning, and Glenn, during our driving tour of the city, explained that this happened from time to time and it was usually only for a few hours.

This was a delight because, as darkness descended and the day’s power outage stretched to a record duration, we just dealt with life without power.  With our new friends Katie, Kelly, and their visiting friend Chris downstairs and made a night of it.  We walked in the darkness to the generator-powered grocery store a few blocks north, got some provisions for an evening picnic (baguette, basil and cheese, a bottle of rum and of coke, and a rotisserie chicken), picked up a few a few candles on our way back at a small street-side tienda, and settled back at our place for a great evening of good food, drink, and life story swapping.

No lights, no internet, no problem.

So San Juan’s disappointment gave way to Granada’s delight.  Now we’re set in a in a great apartment with a great landlord and some great neighbors, and as of 10pm our first night the power is indeed back on.  October is looking good again.

Note:

  1. It turns out the rave reviews San Juan got were from folks who stayed at more resort locations on or around the surfable beaches to the north or south.
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Ometepe’s Splendor

October 2nd, 2012 No comments

After 2 days of bumming around Granada Tracy and I decided to continue our Nicaragua explorations with a trip to Ometepe Island, a sizable land mass in the middle of Lake Nicaragua whose shape approximates two conjoined circles formed respectively by two volcanoes.

I’m quite bad at committing foreign proper nouns to memory at just a few exposures.  So for the first 36 hours of my acquaintance with Ometepe’s existence I, when not trying to pass on reasonable facsimiles (“Olletombo?” ” No, you just mangled the name of an Inca ruin in Peru.” “Ommagumma?”  “No, you just did the same thing but this time with name of a hostel we once stayed in in Guatemala”), I just referred to it as “Boobie Island”.  Yes I’m like a 13 year old regard in some respects, and yes, I’m okay with that.

The path to our target location on Ometepe, the tiny village of Merida, was the stuff of hardy backpacker transit: a march through the squalorous expanse of the Granada market1 to the bus station, a 2 hour bus ride to Rivas, a 10 minute taxi to the dock, a 1 hour ferry to the island, and a 3 hour bus ride to our final destination (the last hour being 14km on an unpaved road).

But oh was it worth it.

Often (but not always), the effort required to get to a location is a strong predictor of how remote/cheap/unspoiled/awesome it will be once you finally get there.  Merida held up this correlation beautifully.  We stayed at Hacienda Merida, a tidy resort whose best cabin was on the upper level facing the lake, and featured a big ol’ hammock on the ample deck and choice views of some of the best sunsets you’ve ever seen (give Tracy a click for the visuals to back this statement up).

On the bus ride we met Brad and Yvonne, a pair of doctors from Australia who’d gone to great lengths to get to what is (for them) one of the ends of the earth2.  During our overlapping days they made fantastic travel companions, ready-made double dates for dining and excursions (thanks to their lead and our desire to follow, Tracy and I had our first horseback ride up to see a waterfall on the island).

At $32 a night the whole setup really encourages settling in for a while.  We had originally planned to stay 3 nights on Ometepe, but after I fell into a rhythm of paradise-like island life, I lobbied Tracy for a few more nights (the arrangement wasn’t ideal for Tracy due to the food situation: vegetarian fare was quite limited in the remote village), and we ended up staying 6.

What did the paradise-like rhythm look like?  The combination of lapping waves, cocks a’crowing, and faint sunlight showing usually woke me around 5am.  I’d go to my “office” (a round stone table steps down from the main building with a great view of the lake framed by on-shore palm trees) with my laptop, do a few hours of inspired coding or writing, have breakfast, work a few more hours more in the tropical breeze, wander “off campus” for lunch, read a while in a hammock, jump off the dock for a swim at sunset, have dinner, hang out a while in the hammock staring off at the lake, and bed time around 9pm.

With the exceptions of excursions, days were largely permutations of these building blocks.  Aside from food boredom (which set in for even omnivorous me at around day 5) I could see settling in to life like that for a easily a few months.  It marked a really nice balance between lounging in paradise and doing productive work, a balance which seriously blisses me out.  (These days I’ve got about a 3-day limit on unbroken leisure: after that I’d much rather be doing or creating something, things like writing or coding decisively overtake hedonistic pleasures in terms of enjoyability.)

There then came the time to mix things up once more.  Yesterday we headed off on the morning bus to slightly bigger Santa Cruz for our last night on Ometepe, and seeing the more jungle side of things was the mission.  After a lovely morning walkabout we had lunch at Restaurant Santa Cruz, where the friendly proprietor recommended we rent a pair of his bikes and ride off to the Ojo del Agua, a pool nestled thoroughly in nature and fed by cool spring water from the nearby volcano.

At first brush we were hesitant: did we have enough time?  Did we want to ride 30 minutes each way?  Did we want to pay for bikes and risk getting lost?  Basically, did we want to be adventurous enough to do something cool while we were here and had the chance, and resist the urge to act crotchety, tired, and travel-inept?

When you’re on super-extended travel, the urge to “take it easy” is strong.  We grappled with this for maybe 2 minutes before resolving that, hell yeah we should do things, we’re still young and strong, and owe it to the world that has so thoroughly blessed us to buck up and go see some shit already.

This is the stuff of maintaining and renewing one’s lease on traveler happiness.  Sure enough we had a great time and of course we had the stamina for the bike ride, of course we had ample time for the trip and enjoying the pool (what else were we there to spend it on?), and of course we could swing the bike rental (70 Cordobas per bike, or about $3 US).   Sometimes you need to step just a tad out of the comfort zone for a reminder of these important truths.

This morning over breakfast we met a couple with whom we’d exchanged nods yesterday as we all biked past one another.  More great company with whom to dine, Sky and Jenni were traveling in from Europe, and headed next for LA.  Sky does video editing and has a pleasing British accent, which he smartly brought to my attention as I told him about CoachAccountable and the need for a slick introductory video to show off the system.  As I work to get the marketing message together I take this meeting as serendipity’s good fortune.

Now as we leave Ometepe we are bound for San Juan Del Sur, the surfing town on the Pacific coast where we plan to settle the rest of this month in Nicaragua.  Our optimum mix of 1 week of travel to 4 weeks of setting in a home is reasserting itself as we yearn to once more have a proper kitchen and drawers to unpack our stuff, so onward we go apartment hunting in our next town!

Notes:

  1. Don’t get me wrong: Tracy and I generally love us some chaotic markets abroad, but the roughshod nature of Granada’s downtown market made produce shopping unappetizing even to us.
  2. From the US, it is all too easy to take our proximity to great countries like Nicaragua for granted.  Hearing Brad & Yvonne describe their trip to get there was a great reminder of how nice that proximity is.
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