Noche Buena, Noche Vieja

After I got back from my vacation and the Laguna, and the Purísima was said and done with, there were still a ton of end of year traditions that I had to partake in. December is usually one of the most comfortable months of the year. The rains have ended and the temperature has cooled off into the high 80’s. Unfortunately, El Niño has left things steamy in the 90’s this year, but that hasn’t put a damper on the festivities. This is wedding season. School is out. The coffee harvest is in full swing, and tons of Nicaraguans and foreigners are streaming through León.

High School Graduation

The school year in Nicaragua runs from February to December, so right after the Purísima it was time for graduation. I work with the seniors, so I wanted to go to the graduations, and the school principals were happy to accommodate me. The only problem was that four of the five schools had scheduled the graduations at the same exact time. My fifth school was a few days later. I wound up making it to three out of four of them that day by shuttling between schools on my bike. I even got to one of the schools and they immediately invited me on to the stage to give an impromptu speech. All I could think of was my counterpart teacher’s infamous quote:

“Eric, here, if you dress up a pig in a cap and gown, even the pig will graduate!”

Pig Cap and Gown

Luckily I didn’t tell all the kids that they were unworthy of graduating and instead congratulated them for their accomplishment and told them how lucky they were to live in the main university town in the country.

The ceremonies are fairly similar to those that I have been to in the United States. Come to think of it, I have probably only ever been to two: mine and Aaron’s. The largest difference is that each students walks on stage with a family member or godparent.

The fifth graduation a few days later was at my largest school and took a very long time. However, I left very pleased. I have a favorite student from this year, and apparently all of the other teachers hold the same opinion as me, because they gave him and only him a special merit award.

Johnny's Special Merit Award. He is studying Industrial Engineering next year.

Johnny’s Special Merit Award. He is studying Industrial Engineering next year.

December 12
Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe

The tradition in León is for all of the little boys and girls in the city to go to the Guadalupe church and join the procession of the Virgin, all dressed up as indigenous people. The girls wear long dresses and put fake brades in their hair, and the boys wear a white shirt and pants and a straw hat. Sometimes their parents even paint mustaches on them. I don’t understand the tradition, it may even be racist, but it is downright cute. Unfortunately I have no pictures. Little Evelyn did not participate this year because her mom had come down with a case of Chikungunya!

December 13
La Hípica

The hípicas are a Nicaraguan tradition in which cowboys on their horses parade through towns, making their horses dance along the way. Rumor even has it that they give the horses beer. The hípicas are very popular in the cattle ranching towns of Nicaragua, but the beer company has commercialized the event and spread it to every town and city in Nicaragua.

I went to see the festivities last year. It was terrible. The streets are packed and the horses (presumably drunk) come way to close to the people lining the street. And the “dancing” is pretty stupid and unimpressive, when they can even manage to get the horses to do anything other than walk. I didn’t go this year (it was during a high school graduation anyway), but I saw and smelled the aftermath. The city smelled like horse crap for a whole day, and trash was strewn over all of the streets.

Sand in my Ear and Waitlist Purgatory

For a few months I have been having trouble with my right ear. I thought that there was water trapped in it, but I couldn’t get it out. I went in to the see the doctor, and he found sand in my ear canal. Apparently it is a common problem. This particular doctor is pretty funny and claims that he can tell what beach a Volunteer frequents by just looking in their ears. When he saw the black sand in my ear he knew right away that I am a Poneloya-Las Peñitas Volunteer. I was down at the beach one afternoon, got walloped by a wave, and the sandy shore water that got in my ear deposited a lot of sand that couldn’t work its way out.

Anyway, they had to send me to the ENT to get all of the sand out. By the end of my appointment her office looked like a torture chamber. She used a big metal syringe to shoot water in, plus she used ear drops, some weird looking metal probes and scissor-like devices, and the sucker thing they put in your mouth at the dentist. We were laughing at how many little sand grains had gotten lodged in there. It didn’t hurt at all though, and now my ears are nice and clean and at no risk of infection or ear drum damage.

Later that week I got some disappointing news. I got waitlisted at my two top choice schools to get an MBA. I really didn’t even think of waitlisting as a possibility. I was hoping for an admit at Duke Fuqua, and I was actually expecting a rejection from Michigan Ross, since they had not offered me an interview. Now I just feel like I am in purgatory. After I got the news I had a few depressing days, but I am going to apply to a few more schools and see what I can do to get off of the waitlists at Fuqua and Ross and actually get admitted.

December 18
Little Evelyn’s Birthday

December 20
ETCA Holiday Arts Festival

One of the great activities at ETCA is the annual Holiday Arts Festival. Youth and adults from the community are invited to submit photography, drawings, stories, poems, songs in English or Spanish, and eco-conscious design items ahead of time, and then on the day of the festival everyone presents, there are additional performers, awards are given out, and there is a dance party afterwards. I was a judge this year and spent the afternoon before the event reading stories and admiring drawings and eco-designs.

December 22
My Birthday

“I’m basically the Neville Longbottom of the Nativity story.”

Being born three days before Jesus can be kind of sucky, but it was actually quite nice this year. First my site-mate Robert took me out on Saturday night with my friends and got me my first Jäger Bomb in two years (it was glorious). Then on my birthday my host family made me lunch and then later that night I went to my friend’s house for dinner, and we went out afterward. I also got a chance to talk to my Grandmother who told me I was stupid not to apply Second Round to more MBA programs. She is right. Thanks Grandma.

December 24
Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve in Nicaragua is called Noche Buena, and it is a big deal. People dress up very nicely, go to mass, and then have dinners with their families and friends. The traditional food is gallina rellena, which means chicken stuffing. It is more like a sweet and savory chicken stew to me.

Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Challah Bread

Mary, Joseph, and the Holy Challah Bread

My host family left the house in my hands while they went to find cool respite with Doña Evelyn’s daughter in La Trinidad, Estelí. I was invited to partake in the festivities at the Sandino household, always so kind to me, and truly opening their doors to all Peace Corps Volunteers. We probably did not sit down for dinner until 11:00 PM, and there must have been 25 people at the table. After midnight, when they “revealed” Baby Jesus in the manger, we did a Secret Santa. I received a t-shirt.

At around 1:30 AM I walked home under the full moon. I could not believe how many people were still out. I walked past people sitting in their front doors drinking rum and kids zipping around on their new scooters. It was a very nice night and I am glad that Dulce and the Sandinos had invited me for the celebration.

December 25
Christmas Day

The Force was strong in Nicaragua as well. Just like all over the world, the new Star Wars premiered in December in Nicaragua. I was excited. I am not a super fan of Star Wars, but nonetheless I am a fan. I saw excellent reviews from my friends and in news articles, so I planned to go see the movie on Christmas Day (I’m Jewish – the Force compelled me). Everyone also seemed to make a big deal about NO SPOILERS. Unfortunately, no spoilers were necessary, because it was the same exact movie as the original Star Wars. Exactly identical. Completely the same movie. A facsimile. A full copy. Every character from the old movie was replaced by a character in the new movie. The plot was the same. The movie even made fun of itself for copying the old one, when Han said that there is always a way to take out the Death Star. If you were the least bit shocked when Ren killed Han on the long catwalk you are a truly crummy fan and completely lack any appreciation for plot comprehension or allusions in cinema.

I understand that a theme of the Star Wars mythos is the cyclical or repetitive nature of the Force. If I willfully suspend my utter disdain for Hollywood or how J.J. Abrams has become the preeminent director of superfan pornography (chief among Peter Jackson and Joss Whedon) in Hollywood these days, the move was still crummy. Some arguments:

  • Finn made no sense whatsoever as a character
  • No really, his character sucked. Where did that attraction for Rey come from?
  • How come Finn got these occasional Force-like attributes out of nowhere?
  • What was a sanitation worker doing on a battlefield?
  • Why would they need a map of the entire galaxy to locate Luke? A map of everything is called an atlas, and it is rarely ever necessary. Just like all maps, you can just take a look at it, find similarities to your geographical knowledge, and figure out what part of space it represents.
  • Who is the First Order, and what was their beef with the Republic?
  • How did the new Death Star get around? Planets revolve around suns. They are not spaceships.
  • Why was it still light on the new Death Star after it sucked up stars?
  • Isn’t extinguishing a star sufficient to destroy a solar system?
  • Rather than exploiting a weakness and using ingenuity, the plan to kill the new Death Star did not make sense and simply seemed a foregone conclusion
  • Rey’s British accent sounded so much like Keira Knightley from Pirates of the Caribbean I thought that Disney had created a Pirates-Star Wars crossover movie

I did like that Kylo’s real name was Ben though. That was a nice touch.

The whole experience makes me simply want to go back and watch the original movies. It would be nice to revisit what was so likable about them. Everyone struggles with oppression in some sort of another. The movie projected that inner struggle on all of us on a grand scale and let good shine through over evil. Love won. The characters were also extremely likable and relatable. Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrificed his entire life for the greater good. Luke was flawed, although heroic. Han Solo sought redemption. Princess Leia had to watch helplessly as her entire planet – friends, family, everything – was blown to smithereens; and then she still persevered and managed to defeat the Empire. Darth Vader was haunting and evil. Kylo Ren was a child playing dress up. Even he admitted that when he took his mask off for Rey. None of the new characters (or the new incarnations of the old characters) have the qualities that turned Star Wars into a classic space saga and one of the preeminent cultural icons of a century.

December 26
Trip to Matagalpa (not Jiquilillo)

After tossing and turning all night, distraught from the C$ 100 I wasted on that garbage not worthy of a trash compactor, I headed to the terminal to hop on a bus to Matagalpa with my friends Megan and Alice. I wound up spending the whole two and a half hour bus ride griping about the film. I think I may have actually convinced them to come back over from the Dark Side. We were headed to Matagalpa just for a little end of year trip. Megan and Alice are short-term Volunteers with an NGO that I occasionally collaborate with, and I was more than happy to accompany them to a friendly northern city.

Originally I was supposed to be headed those days to Jiquilillo Beach with some other Volunteers, but the ENT had banned me from swimming for two weeks because of my sandy ear, so I decided to accompany my friends up north instead.

On Saturday we went to see Matagalpa’s Chocolate Castle. Quite unfortunately, you can’t take bites out of the castle. It is just a small building that looks like a castle where a Nicaraguan company makes chocolate. The chocolate is made from Matagalpan cacao, and it is all natural. I always write about value-added food production on this blog, and chocolate is one such product. Unfortunately, chocolate is very difficult to make. You need to optimize the temperature and humidity, otherwise the chocolate comes out too gritty or soft. I have seen tons of student groups make crappy chocolate. Ritter German chocolate is actually made out of Nicaraguan cacao, but they export the cacao to Germany first. El Castillo chocolate is good, but still has a little bit of a gritty texture. I’ve heard that you need something called a tempering machine to properly modulate the production temperature and get the desired smooth chocolaty texture, and outside of Ritter only Momotombo Chocolate in Managua has one of those machines.

Cacao Mural at the Castle

Cacao Mural at the Castle

Despite my highbrow complaints the Chocolate Castle is still worth a trip to see the chocolate process in their cool castle-like building. They also have a company store where they sell all sorts of flavors in all sorts of sizes, all relatively cheap.

Day two in Matagalpa we climbed Cerro Apante, one of the two hills on either side of the city. It is a nice hike, not too long, through the woods with a steep stream and some falls along part of the way. The view from the top is an impressive overlook of the entire city. There is also a large cross and statue of the Virgin, but I did not like that part. It was windier and cloudier over there. We did not see much wildlife on the trail, but the signs at the trail head said that there are toucans, two types of monkeys, and other neat critters.

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The rest of our time we spent at cafés, eating güirila, and napping. I think that Megan and Alice really enjoyed the opportunity to see Matagalpa, and I am glad that I got to go with them.

December 31
New Years Eve

Early in the morning while it was still dark out I remember waking up and feeling an earthquake. I went back to sleep though. Turns out I wasn’t dreaming. There was a tremor in another part of Nicaragua. Luckily there was not any serious damanage.

Later in the morning I went with my friend Vanessa to Las Peñitas beach (I got cleared to swim by the ENT on the 28th). It was a very nice day for the beach. The tide was low and the waves were uncharacteristically gentle. There were a lot of tourists around, and I could not believe how many new hotels/hostels were opening up. I must have counted four that were not there just three months ago.

In the evening for Noche Vieja Vanessa and I went to the Sandino’s house for a dinner party. Let me tell you, this family loves throwing parties. They have three in December alone, and if there is any birthday or other significant event, you better believe that they will be throwing down.

We ate dinner very late – after midnight in fact. The neighbors also had a Viejo, so we watched them burn it. A Viejo is the figure of a person stuffed with old newspaper and firecrackers. You burn the viejos at midnight in an out with the old in with the new sort of gesture. You can also write resolutions or funny sayings on them.

BONUS – January 1
New Years Day

I found myself this morning with a slight stomach bug. So far it seems minor, but it will nevertheless keep me in a tight radius of my toilet for the rest of the day. This reminds me of Martin Luther, a man who had problems with constipation most of his adult life, found theological revelations in the relief of bowel movements, and undoubtedly came up with some of his most profound theories in the lieu. The resemblance to my current condition has me introspective.

So that brings me to 2016, the year of my triumphant return to the United States of America. December was a bit slow for work, and January may be as well, but I do have some goals for work this year:

  • Continue helping the Telica Volcano Cooperative (was already talking to one of the members this morning actually)
  • Keep working towards the goal of sustainably increasing income for the fish processing cooperative at Poneloya (I was down there on the 29th and we already have a new strategy for 2016)
  • I got good news yesterday – the ladies at ETCA have received some start-up grant money that we applied for! In the next month or two I will be working with them to purchase necessary items using the money and truly starting up their pizza restaurant.
  • Wrapping up my successful teacher trainings
  • Rolling out the LGBTQ Safe Zone Training to more schools (the Ministry of Education and a number of principals are completely on-board!)
  • Admittedly, the entrepreneurship curriculum in the schools is lower on my agenda, but I do think that continuing to work intensely with one or two of my teachers will pay off greatly in the future, so I will continue to be a familiar face at those two schools

And those are just my work goals. Of course I have personal goals, top among them forging a path for myself post-Peace Corps. In addition, there are parts of Nicaragua I still want to visit. I am very excited that next week I am going on vacation to the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua. I will be sure to post about it. Shortly after my trip we have a Volunteer conference that I will be attending and presenting at, and then the school year starts in early February. In late February my group has our Close of Service Conference, where we hear about successfully wrapping things up in site and what we need to do to get our tickets out of here. I will probably be back Stateside in June (I’m not making any plans until I figure out this grad school stuff though), with probably visits to Florida, Washington DC, of course New York (get ready for #BrooklynCouchCrash2016), and Camp Shohola.

Happy New Year! Feliz Año Nuevo!


El Castillo de Cacao

The Chocolate Castle is outside of the main part of town in the Las Marías neighborhood. You can take a taxi right to the Castle for C$ 20, or you can take a city bus to Las Marías. Get off at the Puma gas station and walk another half a kilometer up the road. On the left side of the road there will be a painted rock pointing the way to the Chocolate Castle. It is just a few more hundred yards up a hill from that rock.


The Castle has an English language website with all information, including phone numbers you can call to see if they are open.

An interesting option for lodging in Matagalpa is to stay at the Chocolate Castle. They offer double rooms for $23 per person ($25 with breakfast included). The price includes a tour of the premises. It is a bit outside of the city center, but for some I suppose that is a draw.

Cerro Apante

Cerro Apante is very easy to get to. The entrance is located up up up in the Apante neighborhood. If you follow Calle de las Tiendas (the street with lots and lots of stores on it) south past Parque Darío you will walk right up to the entrance. If you are on the other north side of town, find the statues of Borges and Fonseca in Parque Morazán (by the cathedral). They are right in front of the street.

Head down the street past Parque Darío, and then you start heading uphill…


and up some more…

and up…IMG_6445

and up still…IMG_6444

Eventually the road will turn to dirt, level off, and you will see the entrance to the nature preserve. There is a guard who charges C$ 50 for foreigners to enter and C$ 30 for residents. They also offer guide services for $10 – $20. The hike is not too strenuous and takes no more than three hours, plus the time you spend at the top.

If you don’t want to walk all the way to the park entrance you can take a taxi (for about C$ 20) or a city bus on the Chispa-Apante line. The line ends where the dirt road starts, not far from the entrance to the preserve.


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