A Travellerspoint blog

April 2015

A Cacophony of Colorful Carpets

Local Leon neighborhood's Good Friday tradition

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One of the locals works on his sawdust carpet amid the blaze of color of his neighbor's efforts

Although I grew up Catholic, I would hesitate to say that I am devout follower of my denomination's traditions. Fish is not my Friday meal and I don't confess my sins to a priest. What's more, compared to the enthusiasm shown by the residents of Sutiaba neighborhood, I may as well be a heathen sacrificing a bull to Zeus! They show their devoutness with a colorful, annual tradition whose beauty lasts for only part of one day. The residents of the neighborhood compete with one another to design the most colorful and beautiful, religious-themed carpet made of colored sawdust. They create them on the streets of their little section of Leon, and both tourists and citizens flock to watch them work. The beautiful carpets are blazoned with themes such as the baptism of Jesus, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, or religious symbols such as chalices, doves, and crosses. These colorful works of art are meant to be obliterated, though, by the people who march during an evening religious procession through the streets.

Step One: Create the frame for your carpet and water the sawdust and tamp it down into a smooth surface

Step Two: Residents mix bags of colored sawdust as they stand next to their "canvas" on which they will create their image

Thankfully, our last day in Nicaragua turned out to be Good Friday, which gave me a chance to witness this tradition first-hand. We took two trips down to the Sutiaba by cab (less than $2 each way). On our first trip in the late morning, the residents were setting up the bases for their carpets. Most had framed the rectangular area with wood and poured sawdust into the area about 3"-4" deep. They watered the sawdust and then pounded it down to create a smooth surface. After they are satisfied with their "canvas," they sketch out their design with a pointed object. Most look off of paper sketches, photocopied paintings, or even pictures on their cell phones for inspiration. They then begin to mix up the bags of colored sawdust. Light-colored sawdust is poured into a watertight plastic bag, and is combined with paint and water. These are shaken to ensure the color works its way through the sawdust thoroughly. The whole family or neighborhood gets involved in this. During this time, vendors begin to stake out their places to sell food, drink, or trinkets to the crowds.

A family works on the details of its carpet in the Sutiaba neighborhood

An artist incorporates flowers into his carpet's colorful design

We timed our second visit perfectly, arriving around 4 pm. Some of the carpets were completed, but many were still being worked on. Time seemed to stop as we walked and others in the gathering crowd walked from carpet to carpet, photographing the artists at work. Some of the larger carpets had as many as a half dozen people working on them at once. On Most, it was easy to spot the main artist, who directed assistants to fill in background portions while they concentrated on the highly-detailed parts of the artwork. A number sprinkled packets of appropriately-colored glitter into parts of their scenes to make it sparkle and stand out. We saw one artist working in flowers and vegetables into his work. Some were done flat, while others were formed in relief, with parts of the drawing higher than others.

Residents use pictures and sketches -- even cell phone images -- as inspiration for their canvas

Their care and attention to detail was inspiring. It was heart warming to see a family working together on their devotional offering. Children sat by their parents watching and learning. Teens pitched in and were coached by more experienced members of the family. Some of the carpet designs were very amateur, and you could tell that it was a work of the heart -- not necessarily of art. However, others were stunningly rendered, with shading and subtle variations in color. You would see them smoothing two colors together to blend them on the surface. We even noticed carpets that incorporated prepainted styrofoam sections. One showed a bishop whose clothes were done in colored sawdust, but whose face and hands had been painted on styrofoam and were then placed into that part of the carpet. We disagreed on whether the minority who did this were "cheating" or not. Certainly, it would be much easier to paint a design on styrofoam than it would be to create it from a mosaic of bags and bags of different colored sawdust.

Scenes had religious themes, such as Jesus as the Good Shepherd

I was shocked to look at my watch and see two hours had gone by. We'd been told that the crowds would grow into a wall-to-wall mass of people by the time of the procession. It was getting packed when we decided to call it quits and go to dinner. Although we could have eaten at one of the numerous street vendors, I have never been a fan of "fair food." So, we decided to escape the throng entirely and checked out a restaurant our guidebook had recommended.

We joined the throngs checking out the creations of the residents

Our shuttle to the Managua airport would not pick us up until 9 pm. We had been essentially "homeless" on our last day in Nicaragua, ever since our noon checkout. In between our two visits to the Sutiaba, we'd paid $6 apiece to the nearby Hotel Azul to use their pool and facilities. We lounged for a few hours in the cool water, letting the sun beat down on us while the midday heat raged. It was a relaxing, low-key way to end our week in Nicaragua. The colorful carpets of Sutiaba were certainly worth the inconvenience of not having a hotel room for that day. Being able to watch the devotion shown by its residents was a special moment in my travels. I know that, at times, on this trip I groused whether Nicaragua was living up to my expectations. In the recount of my travels, would I recall my time in Nicaragua fondly? The final two days in Leon ended the trip on a high note. Walking amidst the scenes of religious splendor created by ordinary men and women in a poor Nicaraguan neighborhood will forever be a colorful spot in my memory.

Simple tools and even simpler ingredients blended to create works of art destined to live only for part of one day

Although these images have all been trampled and obliterated, the memory of them will linger in my recollections of Nicaragua

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:03 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Hurtling Down a Volcano Sounds Like a Good Time...right?

Volcano boarding on Cerro Negro

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Atop Cerro Negro, getting ready for my ride

As I lined up my wooden sled, aka volcano surf board, with the furrow in the volcanic sand and pebbles that the previous thrill seekers had worn, I tried to picture what his would be like. I was essentially riding a wooden sled down a 45 degree angle on the slope of Cerro Negro -- one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanoes. Would it be a steady controlled ride? Or would it be like a roller coaster hurtling down the slopes of a volcano? Would I panic and spin out or go tumbling down the slopes? Then there was the way you slowed down...you are supposed to lean forward and press your soles harder into the sand and gravel. To go faster, you lean back and press your feet down with less pressure. What if I pressed too hard and flipped?

Cerro Negro, one of Nicaragua's youngest and most active volcanos

The morning had begun calmly enough. After breakfast, we walked several blocks to the office of Tierra Tours. We sat on rocking chairs and waited for the rest of the group to arrive. There would be 20 of us -- Americans, French, English, and Spaniards. The directionally challenged Franco-Spanish contingent was wandering the streets of Leon, trying to find the office. Eventually, the Tierra Tours rep told them to get to an intersection and telephone where they were and we'd pick them up. We loaded up in the van, and headed out. After picking up the lost Europeans, we stopped at a market for water, then headed off. A trucker's mishap blocked our path a few minutes later, but we detoured through a very rural looking neighborhood and were soon underway again.

Gorgeous views of more of Nicaragua's volcanoes, stretching into the distance

It was a dusty, hour-long ride to the volcano through the countryside. We slowed to let wooden carts drawn by yoked pairs of oxen to clear our path. Jenny remarked that rural Nicaragua looks like a hard life. Farmsteads seemed to scratch a living out of the dusty soil with their animals and crops that grew under the blistering sun. Passengers in the window seats had the dilemma of opening their window to catch a breeze, or sweltering by closing to avoid the clouds of dust the billowed in from time. Had we known how filthy we'd be at the end of our ride down Cerro Negro, we'd have tossed the windows wide open. The two French contingents were the most vocal and chatted back and forth loudly. The Americans and English were more subdued, and spoke quietly to one another or just watched the scenery go by.

More scenic views as we climb up the volcano's slopes

We arrived at the volcano's national park station, and piled off the van to sign in and make our choice whether to hire a porter or carry our own board up the slopes. I ended up paying the $5 extra to have my board waiting for me at the top -- mainly because I knew I'd want to take lots of photos. I didn't want to worry about it being torn from my grasp by the swirling winds while I was snapping photos. It was worth it, as the wind howled and tore at us. I watched the others struggle to hold on to their boards.

A line of hikers climbs past the smoking bowl of the volcano's main crater

The hike up was less strenuous than I thought it might be. The views were fantastic, though. This part of Nicaragua is pimpled with dozens of volcanoes. From our vantage point, we could see them stretching off into the hazy heat on all sides of us. Cerro Negro was indeed black. Its slopes are composed of varying sizes of black rocks, stones, pebbles, and sand. In some parts, your feet sank into the soil making it hard to get a firm foothold. In other places, you could step from one larger, jagged rock to another, and work your way uphill easier. Some sections of the pathway were sheltered from the wind, but others were exposed and you were buffeted as if you were running a gauntlet of pillow fights.

The group struggles into its gear while being buffeted by howling winds

Before long, we had climbed high enough to see into the mouth of the crater. We smelled the sulfur, and could see the white and yellow discoloration of the noxious gases and chemicals. We circled the crater on the cup of the edge, working our way up and up. Eventually, we would climb to more than 1,700 meters above sea level. We paused to look at the 360 degree panorama. The area immediately beneath Cerro Negro's slopes were stained black by volcanic rock and ash for its most recent eruption, less than 20 years ago. The dusty soiled regained its reddish-orange color the further away it stretched. Patches of thorny vegetations lent splashes of dull green. The blue sky smiled down upon us, a cheery counterpoint to the angry, intense glare of the sun. We struggled into our one-size-fits-all jumpsuits. Mine was obvious made for a smaller person. We stowed our cameras and water bottles in the thick cloth bags. The guides passed out goggles. I noticed mine were well scuffed and I would soon find out why.

Hurtling down the volcano's slopes, kicking up plumes of dust and gravel

Next, the guides explained how we would ride the sleds down the volcano. There instructions were simple and easy to remember. Keep your soles in contact with the slopes at all times. Lean back to go faster, lean forward to slow. Counter-intuitive, I noticed, and hoped I would mix this up if I started to go out of control! Our guides said the first section of our downhill run is a 40 degree slope, which then sharpens to 45 degrees at the halfway point. He advised going slow in the beginning until we felt comfortable,and then letting loose if we want to at the end. The 20 of us split ourselves among among two chutes or runs that previous sledders had worn into the side of Cerro Negro. I noticed we lost sight of the sledders almost immediately after they began their run.

Finally, it was my turn. I pushed off and slid back and forth through the groove. Apparently, I leaned too far to the right and slewed sideways to a stop. I righted myself and kicked off again. The sled seemed to take off like a rocket -- its smooth metal and Formica underside offsetting the friction caused by my weight on the board. I focused on the position of my legs to ensure they had the correct bend. I watched the storm of pebbles and sand the heels of my hikingif boots created as they fought the increasing momentum. With the mechanics of riding under control, I raised my eyes to look at the slope. And swallowed. Yikes! Picture yourself in the front car of the steepest roller coaster you've even on. Now, cut that car free so you are on your own. Oh, and while you're at it, get rid of the rails. You are roaring downhill completely on your own. The only control you have is how hard you press your soles into the explosion of gravel your feet are kicking up. Press too hard on one side and you begin to lean dangerously, threatening to overbalance and go tumbling off your narrow board.

I never noticed the lesser degree of slope. To me, it seemed my sled was screaming almost out of control at top speed from the moment I kicked off the second time. "Too fast! Too fast!" I kept telling myself. But no matter how hard I pressed my soles into the surface, I kept picking up more and more speed. I felt a wave of dust and gravel bounce off my body, face, and plink away at my goggles. A couple times I was sure I was about to crash at any moment. I was leaning forward to slow down (was that advice actually a cruel joke?), which made me feel I was about to pitch forward off my board. Eventually, I saw the end of the run approaching, and a previous boarder squarely in my path. I leaned to veer out of the chute, which bounced me across uneven slope. I stayed upright, though, and eventually slowed to a stop. "Whoo!" I think I shouted. As I dragged my board over to the group, I couldn't help but comment, "That was a LOT faster than I thought it would be!" I'm not sure if the French understood, but they cheered my ride.

We watched the rest of the group do their runs. Another tour company's group, in bright orange jumpsuits, must have been stocked with thrill seekers. We counted four or five of them who accelerated so fast that they lost control and pitched off their boards, tumbling and rolling downslope. A couple lost their goggles in the process, and one even left his board on the slope and loped downhill in a panic. Once our group was finished, we carried our gear back to the van and boarded. We all felt (and looked) filthy. Everyone's face was blackened by the volcanic dust, and I could feel it on my skin and in my hair. I dozed on the drive back, dreaming of pure cleaner water to drink and shower in. What I liked best about the tour was it was both thrilling and scenic. The views were fantastic from atop Cerro Negro. We got to circle most of the crater, and actually feel we were on top of a volcano. This was part of what I'd missed earlier this trip at Volcan Masaya. I was happy we'd decided to do this excursion. It was definitely one of the high points of Nicaragua.

Leon's museum of legends and myths, housed in an infamous jail where the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza tortured prisoners

Back in Leon that evening, we watched another of the religious processions as it left the cathedral. Earlier, we visited a folklore museum on the site of one of Leon's most notorious jails, where the dictator Somoza tortured prisoners and dissenters. It was somehow fitting that all of the spooky stories from Nicaraguan myth were modeled in life size figurines in a place where political horrors had been committed. Our guide at the museum was fantastic, and took the time to explain each of the dozens of mannequins in the collection, as well as the history of the jail. All in all, it was probably my favorite day of the trip. We would leave for home late the next day, and our trip was hurtling towards an end -- just like the ride down Cerro Negro.

We never saw any of these immense figures (see me for scale) parading through the streets, but it was nice to see them in the museum

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:14 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (0)

Local Advice Makes Leon (and Old Leon) Roar

Colonial ruins and colonial churches

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The cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua

Our entire plan for the day couldn't have happened without the excellent staff at Las Isletas Boutique Hotel in Granada. They have done a good job helping us out with our sightseeing, but they hit one out of the park with today's suggestion. We had booked our first 4 nights in Granada, and the last two in Leon, Nicaragua. The problem is that they are roughly 3 hours away from each other. Public transport, aka the "chicken bus," would be the cheapest route, but lose us an entire day of sightseeing. Shuttles run by travel agencies are faster, but not too expensive, but don't get in till about 3 pm -- too late to take in one of the two main things we wanted to see in Nicaragua (the volcano Cerro Negro and the ruins of Old Leon).

Ruins of Old Leon

So, the staff offered to hire a driver to take us to Leon, but stop in Old Leon on the way. Bingo! More expensive, but allows us to do both of the "must do" things we had on our list. Of course, Old Leon is not the most visited sight in Nicaragua, so we had to help our driver find it - ha, ha! Turns out they're rebuilding the road to Old Leon, but the engineers thought it would be a good idea to take down the sign for the turnoff! We drive about 5 minutes past it, but thankfully our driver sensed we'd missed it and asked another driver. We found out later the staff at Old Leon get complaints daily about the lack of signage. So, we didn't do too bad going only a little out of our way.

Monument to the Indian resistance to the Spanish conquistadors

Our English speaking guide at the site was a nice man, and between the three if us, we did a good job of translating the information. He did want to rush us through the tour, though -- even though we were only the 4th group to show up that day. That is one of my pet peeves and why I'm usually willing to take the chance of missing information by skipping on a guide entirely. Too often they want to give you the abbreviated tour, as all the incentives are set up that way. The sooner they finish, the sooner their turn comes up again, and usually that is how they get paid.

Volcan Momotombo, whose eruption was the deciding factor in the Spanish abandoning the site of Old Leon

Rant off, and now I'll tell you a bit about the site. It was built in the early 1500s, one of the earliest settlements in the area. However, it was abandoned about 86 years later due to the combination of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions -- which combined with the predatory, economic practices of the colonial Spanish, meant its income was dropping year by year. You can only enslave and oppress a people for so long before the profit curve begins to work against you. The city was moved northwest to its present location, and the jungle and volcanic ash hid Old Leon from the world for centuries. What is there today has been excavated in the last 50 years or so, and consists of brick foundations and walls of the town. It was a hot, but atmospheric, meander through the past. This is no Pompeii, but Old Leon makes a pleasant excursion for those who enjoy history.

Leon's oversized and ornate, white, stone cathedral

Once we checked I to our hotel in Leon, we began our self-guided tour of Leon's amazing churches. The top of the list, and less than 100 yards from where we are staying, is the cathedral. It is the largest in Central America, leading some to speculate there were some shady dealings to get the plans approved from Spain. The cathedral's massive white stone walls, towers, and dome are blackened with age. The decoration of the stonework is incredible, with carvings, statues, and shining bronze bells all contributing to the soaring effect of the exterior. The interior is more plain, but a number of important figures from Nicaragua's history are buried there. There is supposed to be an awesome rooftop tour we hope to squeeze in, but like all rooftops we've encountered in Nicaragua, it was closed.

Iglesia de la Recollection, probably the prettiest church in Leon, Nicaragua

We stopped by two more scenic churches in our afternoon visit, then headed back to get cleaned up. We wanted to be waitin to catch the Holy Week procession at 6 pm. Perhaps the best timing of one entire trip is that it is occurring during Easter week. The churches in Nicaragua take out their holy statues and parade them through the streets. We'd caught one in Granada, but hoped to catch more in more devout Leon. In fact, our stay in Leon (and Nicaragua) concludes on Good Friday. So, hopefully, we will get a chance to witness the pageantry of a Nicaraguan Easter week. As always, we will be counting on the information and advice of the locals -- just like we did this morning on our visit to Old Leon.

Evening Holy Week procession from Leon's cathedral, complete with lighted statue, band marching behind it, and a crowd of worshippers...hopefully, the first of many we will see in Leon!

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:47 Archived in Nicaragua Comments (1)

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