Thursday, 9 August 2007

Women making jam in the mountains

More than just a fair price

Just one more thing before I sign off for a while – a few words on fair trade.

Having just seen all the wonderful things a fair trade does for communities I am compelled to give you the hard sell on fair trade products.

Whenever possible I urge you to buy fair trade products. Not only do the growers receive a better price for their crops, they are also part of something much more long term. The fair trade movement keep communities together, they provide training, encourage organic production where possible and assist with crop diversification so farmers aren’t relying on just one crop for their livelihoods.

They also provide a social service specifically with regard to women. Through education they empower women; to be independent, giving them the confidence and the opportunities to form cooperatives on their terms with other women. They teach about relationships, sexual abuse, drugs and alcohol awareness. Some of this may sound patronising to us in the developed world, but in a country where state education is basic, and social workers are unheard of, many people in these remote communities are often unaware about the age of consent or that sleeping with a relative – and in many cases family members – is illegal. Fair trade strives to improve the life of farmers and their families wherever it can.

Buying fair trade is one easy way you can do some genuine good in the world.

Mission accomplished?

Here I am sat at home in London having successfully completed my mission six weeks ahead of schedule.

Well not exactly. After the kids successfully performed the play Mother Earth to a crowd of baying school children in Jinotega’s Central Parque I decided it was time to move on.

As previously mentioned, although the whole experience was fascinating, I felt that the operation ran smoothly enough without me. I was more of a distraction than a helping hand. Besides, as hard as I tried I really could not decipher the accent.

One chap who took part in the workshop loved farming and whenever he got the chance he would tell me about the wonderful life. Unfortunately not only could I not understand 50% of what he was saying, but, many of his words were replaced with bizare hand gestures - I had no idea what they meant. He spoke, clicked his fingers and clapped his tounge like it was the most natural thing in the world.

"What would a typical Monday consist of?" I would ask.

"Ahh, well usually some of this [shaking of the wrist] and a bit of this [two fingers would stroke the index finger on the other hand]". That is what I was up against.

And so, faced with the choice of trying to set up more volunteering (takes a while to setup and usually involves payments), arranging more Spanish classes (not more hours in the classroom), or heading up to Honduras and Guatemala (couldn’t face lugging around that backpack), I decided it was time to head back to my incredibly patience girlfriend, my new niece and the rest of my family. And of course the job pages.

The return
I do intend to go back to Nicaragua one day. I’ve met many people who I would love to work with in some way in the future. One promising project is a newly formed cooperative formed by ex combatants from the Contra war in the 1980s. Because they’re ex combatants many people - including government departments - want nothing to do with them. In the charity world we call them 'marganalised people'. A couple of their representatives approached me and asked if I could highlight their plight and seek some form of funding so they can plants crops and make a living for themselves. I said I would try my best. Watch this space.

And finally, what you all want to know; after four months do I speak Spanish? Unfortunately not. I can however, understand most of what people are saying to me, if they speak clearly, I can ask for most things, handle myself in awkward situations and can pretty much make sense of whole newspaper articles. What I struggle to do is keep up with the fast pace of a conversation which, unless you're a recluse, is what daily life tends to consists of.

Practice makes perfect
The next thing to do is enrol in a Spanish class where it’s a case of purely practising conversation and learning new vocab with people of a similar level. Once I have a job and have got back into a routine that is the first thing I’ll be doing. I promise.

In the meantime I shall be signing off for a while. I hope you enjoyed the blog. Do check back occasionally and I'll try and keep you posted on all things Spanish and Nicaraguan.

Muchas gracias,


Wednesday, 8 August 2007

I get my own mask

Let's hit the winding road

After a week and a half of mask making, prop making and rehearsing the play was ready to go.

In a last minute change to plans we hired a bus and headed to the opening of a community centre on a cooperative 1.5 hours away along a steep and rocky road. As we rolled down hills and got stuck in river beds some of the previously shy and subdued children were literally howling with excitement.

The community were all gathered under gazebos to witness probably the most important event since the last wedding. It was the perfect opportunity to try out the play in front of the audience it was intended for; fellow coffee producers.

Before taking to the stage though we needed to sit through the entertainment. First - as is customary in Nicaragua - were the long speeches as community members thanked the local government, the European Union and the charity Christian Aid for contributing to the building which will probably serve as a classroom, a clinic, an internet cafe, a post office and a talking shop, to name a few purposes. In a place where it’s always raining anything with a roof on is always in use.

After the speeches was the variety show; the adults played the music and the kids performed the dance routines to traditional music. Meanwhile plates of local food and sweetened coffee were handed out. And at these events it doesn’t matter if you only ate a few hours ago – the plate is forced into your hand. That day the community must have fed about 50 people.

And finally, 1.5 hours later, the children took to the stage for the first performance of Mother Earth. And to every one's relief, it was a success. There were a few missed lines and a few nerves here and there but on the whole it went well; the adults in the audience nodded in agreement and the kids were transfixed. For many it was probably the first piece of theatre they'd ever seen.

The play highlighted the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and the thousands of artificial food products on the market – Coca Cola being just one on a long list. All of these products, if not dealt with carefully, will damage their livelihoods and beyond.

It will take more than a play to make the adults change their practices but if the message gets through to enough children the next generation may have a wholly different approach to their relationship with the land.

After several pats on the back we got on to the village dance floor for half an hour of dancing. Nobody needs much of an excuse here or any dutch courage, everyone was busting the moves stone cold sober. Finally, as the sun was setting, we boarded the bus for the bumpy trip back to town. The kids howled all the way.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The President gets fruity

Last week was Revolution Day (19th July) here in Nicaragua.

The day celebrates the day the people overthrew the dictator Samoza Garcìa in 1979. The dictator was overthrown principally by the revolutionary army, the Sandinista, who had a brief spell in power before the United States funded a guerrilla army to overthrow them.

Anyway, that was 18 years ago and the people are finally moving on as the first generation probably in Nicaragua's history are growing up without having lived through war.

However, the former Sandinista leader and now president - he was re elected last November - doesn't seem to want to forget that revolution.

Watching the huge rally on television taking place in the capital Managua, I felt I could have been in North Korea or one of those despotic former Soviet states. The stage was adorned with pineapple and melons - a symbol of prosperity I presume - and giant billboards of the president, in his trademark jeans, collarless shirt and a cap, looking down on the people with a clenched fist in the air.

After the President was hero worshipped for half an hour - by his wife - we were then treated to one of many long speeches about winning the revolution interspersed with chants of 'Arriba the World's Poor'.

Sadly one of President Daniel Ortega's friends of the struggle couldn't make it, Libya's Colonel Ghadaffi, but his other big buddy could, Hugo Chavez.

What followed was more promises to help the world's poor and finally what many had been waiting for, and Daniel didn't disappoint, a big rant about the USA and the fact that most of Nicaragua's problems are really down to the imperialists.

I'm no fan of US policy in Central America but surely it doesn't help to provoke a superpower that is also doing quite of bit for the people in the very countryside I'm working in.

Throughout the event a Spanish version of Give Peace of Chance was played and another popular ditty called Power to the People boomed over the speakers every time Mr or Mrs Ortega said something poignant.

If you were a new comer to the country you'd think the revolution happened a week last Tuesday.

The papers said pretty much same, 'Why his Ortega talking about war when all the Nicaraguans want to do is work' was the tone of it. Even ardent supporters like the ones based here in the north were a bit mythed - they´d never seen so much pomp and ceremony.

Let's hope pomp and ceremony was all it was because, as someone who's beginning to get an understanding of this country, I'd say the main enemy is within in the name of corruption and chronic mismanagement.

And finally, on a positive note, we've had power for the last 3 nights running. Let's hope that's one problem fixed.

Here to help EU

The European Union, complete with camera crew, are in town and it´s all systems go.

This morning banners have been erected, display boards are covering the unsightly and extremely smelly toilets, everyone has donned their branded caps and t-shirts and for once the staff in the coffee shop actually look like they work here - they're wearing aprons. Even the military popped in for a visit complete with fatigues and desert boots. They either fear a coup or an MP is in on the party.

Meanwhile two of our students have been plucked out to be interviewed. But first they had to be briefed for half an hour. If they weren't nervous before they certainly are now.

As for the workshop, due to said interruptions we seem to have ground to a halt as teachers are called out to do their bit. Fear not though, someone always has a dodgy DVD in their bag, yesterday it was Kung Fu and Spiderman, today someone has the brand new Harry Potter - straight to DVD.

Tomorrow is the big performance of 'Mother Earth' the play the kids have been working on aimed at raising awareness about pollution.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The toxic tango

Week 2 and I'm based in the office sitting in on a two week workshop with some of the youth from the cooperatives. The aim of this specific workshop is to educate the kids about their relationship with the earth.

Anyone who's been to Nicaragua will have seen the litter strewn towns and highways. The people either don't care or aren't aware that much today's rubbish isn't biodegradable. Rubbish though is just a start, the course deals with the damaging effects of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and so on. Effects such as water pollution, cancer and birth defects in the population. All things that the next generation of farmers need to be aware of.

The workshop brings two extremes together, some heavy theory about the laws relating to the environment and then two hours later, the whole class - and often me - will be doing the samba around the room, followed by some papier mache mask making.

And the reason for all this: at the end of the fortnight the kids will be performing a play called Mother Earth. The drama teacher's plan is to bring storytelling through theatre back to life. Since the Somoza era - the family who ran the country as a dictatorship from 1937 to 1979 - drama has'nt been taught in schools and the 4000+ drama groups have been reduced to 4. Which is one reason the teachers feel that information such as caring for the land for the next generation is no longer taught by most parents, because they weren't taught themselves.

What's interesting is that the so called children are actually aged 16-22 yet seem so much more innocent than their western counterparts. They're also extremely weary of me and try and avoid my questions at all costs. However, as the days go by I'm beginning to sense a little warmth. I think a few more tangos and the conga will soon have them at ease.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

El Campo

This last week I've been out to the countryside - El Campo in Spanish - which entailed sitting side saddle for 1.5 hours as we drove through driving rains on dirt tracks to visit small yet highly productive fincas. Just when you think you're in the middle of nowhere all of a sudden you're in a huge finca complete with schools, churches and usually a pool hall.

The organisation I deal with though deals with the smaller fincas, the ones that are cooperatives - owned and run by the communities.

It's absolutely incredible to see that in these remote communities there is electricity, running water people wearing the latest cut of jeans or Nikes trainers - albeit imitations.

The thing is, these people aren't wealthy but thanks to the fair price they receive, medical assistance from the US and the charities who are helping them to diversify their range of crops, they can continue the modest lifestyle they are used to and enjoy. Maybe I was naive but it was nice to be pleasantly surprised.

What's more, from the adults I've spoken to, they have no desire to move to the bigger towns. They go in get what they need and are relieved to get back. Next week the organisation is running a workshop for some of the youngsters from the coops, teaching them about environmental responsibility with some drama thrown in. I shall be asking them if they're happy to carry on with the family business.

And finally, apologies for the lack of pics and the fact that the updates aren't coming think and fast. Every evening as soon as I sit to write the nightly power cuts kick in.

Hasta luego

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Repeta por favor

Greetings from a cold and wet Jinotega.

Being here is incredible if not extremely challenging.

From day one when I was greeted in the office I struggle to comprehend what was being said to me. I was really dissapointed of how limited my Spanish was and the fact that it is very basic for real life situations. I can ask for many thinks, get from A to B and complain when the hot shower isn´t hot (tough luck) but when it comes to talking and understanding in an office with several people I´m lost.

But, I´ll allow myself one excuse - the dialect is so different to what I have ever heard before. There are is so much slang, letters are dropped off words and verbs are conjugated in ways I never thought possible. I imagine it´s like an English language student volunteering with a bunch of jordies.

What it is doing though is really helping me to practice what I´ve learnt. As before, in León, everything I want has to be done in Spanish. So I´m begining to think in Spanish again. Also, because there are so few foreigners here, people in the shops and bars are really keen to talk which again is a help.

The other slight problem is, there´s not actaully anything to do at the moment. As mentioned in the last post, the cooperative works with young children, but because the countryside is so vast they don´t see them every day, they select a group of them and bring them in to town for a few weeks where they´re taught about coffee production, organic farming as well as information such as alcohol and drugs awareness and social responsibility. There is a class being taught next week so I look forward to seeing how it goes down.

And to make this volunteering worthwhile I´ve decided to interview as many people as possible in order to write and article, or more, when I return the UK in an effort to promote and stress just how much of a difference Fair Trade makes. Because in reality I can't help these people here. They have a perfectly good smooth running organisation and they don't really need a do-gooder getting in the way. I sort of knew that would be the case anyway, I just thought there might have been something for me to do.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Back to work - sort of

Apologies for the belated update. I meant to post an update of my progress and write a huge critique of Nicaragua after my course. Instead I fled to to the quiet and fairly remote Isla Ometepe where the urge to blog strangely left me. After that I met my girlfriend for a lovely 2.5 week sojoun in Costa Rica. So, after a month´s break it´s time to get back to blogging and start speaking Spanish.

Here´s a brief update of what´s happened since my last post.

School´s out
After completing my 160 hours of tuition I spent one week on Isla Ometepe, an island on the middle of Lake Nicaragua - the largest lake in the world. Because of their distance from the mainland they remained largely untouched by the civil war and with water from the mountains and extremely fertile volcanic soil they were virtually self sufficient. Now in peacetime the island has plenty of cars and consumer goods, but the residents still feel that they are quite different from those on the mainland.

On the island I stayed in a hostel - formerly the holiday home of the late dictator Somoza - run by Alvaro who also doubles as an internet entrepreneur. He´s currently working on a project to bring fast free internet to all the schools and rural communities on the island. And in addition provide every school child with a laptop. Once the network is set up the fee local companies, tourists, and government offices pay will fund the schools and rural ares. Having just received substantial funding from the government he believes he can change the future of the island giving people a choice to do something other than agriculture. I belive he has the knowledge and charisma to suceed with it I just hope the government follow through on their promise because on the whole people seem to feel let down with the new government.

The state of Nicaragua
Throughout my time in Nicaragua I have met many young people trying to get somewhere in business and continually being frustrated by beauracracy, high prices and poor services.

The electricity company is run by a Spanish company who continue to hike the prices while power cuts become more a part of everyday life than ever before. During my time in Leon we would pretty much have a least one brief power cut every evening and occasionally they would last 1-2 hours. In the last weeks before I left they were also happening most mornings.

Broadband interent is too expensive for most people so they have to settle for an over priced slow dial-up connection for around $30. This is what most people pay in the UK for super fast broadband.

And the reasons for these high prices? One family has a monopoly on some of Nicaragua´s most important goods and services. Without competition prices have got out of control. The 2nd poorest country in Central America is paying for utilities at first world prices. I was shocked to hear about the monolopoly and how the family/companies retain it but for fear of libel I should probably say no more until I can get all the facts.

So having been to the vastly developed countries of Costa Rica and Panama - they have their problems but everything seems to work - I am now looking forward to returning to Nicaragua for stage 2.

The city of mists
The next stop is to the mountains of Jinotega, near the Honduran border, where I´m going to volunteer with a coffee cooperative. They´re fair trade certified and supply coffee to the UK and beyond.

What I´ll be doing there I don´t actually know. There was a mention of machinery and another of teaching the workers´ children. As long as I´m not risking any of my limbs I´m easy. As for the other arrangements such as accommodation and food, in true Nicaraguan style, everything is pretty vague. My main concern is whether I´ll be able to understand them and vice versa. Given that I had great help in writing my introductory email in Spanish they probably think I´m a native.

So, if I´m not sacked on day one I hope to be updating you more frequently on my progress.

Friday, 25 May 2007

For want of a better word.

Made my first big faux pas this week.

There´s a man - about 60 - who sits in front of our house every afternoon. Sometimes he carries out DIY for Hilda - the landlady - but most of the time he just sits with a cup of coffee that Hilda sells him for 1 cordoba a cup (3p). He always says hello to me and we try and have a chat but for me his accent is so indecipherable I usually just nod and get on my way.

The other day he was asking for something but I couldn´t work out what. I concluded that it was most likely to be coffee or Hilda.

So I asked him if he wanted more coffee.

´Quiere mas cafe?´He didn´t.

´Quiere Hilda?´ I asked, to which he shook his head and gave me a puzzled ´I don´t understand look´.

I repeated it again slowly using the friendly familiar version of the verb, rather than the formal.

´Do you want Hilda´. He shook his head emphatically.

I couldn't work out what he wanted so said goodbye and assumed he´d knock on the door if it was important.

You´re no doubt ahead of me here.

The following day I went to school and asked my teacher if he could demonstrate the difference between the formal and the informal. He did and I told him I´d been using it that way but was receiving confused looks.

´How did you use it´ he asked.

I explained the situation and he burst out laughing.

´Quiere Hilda means: Do you love Hilda?´

I see. I should have said ´Busca Hilda´. Are you searching for Hilda.

The following day the man wasn´t on the step. I felt terrible but couldn´t find the right words to explain my faux pas to Hilda. Thankfully the following day he returned smiling away and giving me firm handshakes as before. I assume a day away from the doorstep was enough to show me that he´s only after Hilda´s Nescafe and nothing more.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Volcano Momotombo

The break through - possibly

I´ve almost completed six weeks of my course and have two weeks to go.

These last few two weeks have by far been the most demanding.

From gently learning past and the present tense I was suddenly plunged into Pluscuamperfecto, the Gerundio and various other perfects and imperfects. I had so much going on it my head that all of a sudden I felt I could only string the most basic of sentences together.

How is it possible to be surrounded by Spanish speakers, learning for 6 hours+ per day and not get it?

Well thankfully, whilst doing a few homework exercises suddenly things started to come together. ´This word fits here´, ´ahh that´s what you use the gerundio for´.

I still have a long way to go but at least a few things that previously seemed to have no logic to them are now making sense.

Now I know you´re not going to pity me but I am in serious need of a break. I don´t think I can take on board any more information. In hindsight I think it would have been best to do about 4 weeks, go travelling and practising for a few weeks and then back to school for another 4.

So as it stands, I have two weeks to go, then my girlfriend´s coming over - she´s expecting some seriously good Spanish - and then I need to sort out some volunteering. That´s when I get to practice, learn more and try to understand the Nicaraguan accent.

This weekend I´off to swim in a volcano crater near the colonial city of Granada. I need it - honestly I do.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The next Alan Sugar

Most of the water here is sold in small plastic bags. You chew the top off the bag and suck it out in one. They´re sold everywhere.

On a recent bus journey we pulled into town and the usual mass of hawkers barged onto the bus selling the usual stuff; biscuits, ice cream, fizzy drinks and water.

Outside the bus was a young entreprenuer who´d found himself a carrier bag, like you would get from Tesco, filled it up to the brim with water and stuck a straw in the top. He was selling it for the bargain price of 10p. The journey had been so hot and dusty I was about ready to down a shopping bag´s worth of water. I was a little concerned about hygene factor though. So instead manage to find a chap with a dusty bottle of water.

After a couple of minutes everyone drank up, threw their empty bags out of the window - as everyone does in Nica - and off we went.

Top marks for initiative though.

On your bike

Due to the high price of public transport - which like in the UK is run by private companies - bicycicles, even in this soaring heat are commonplace. What´s more, most bike usually have two people on them. The extra person usually sits awakwardly on the handlbars or precariosuly on the cross bar. Despite the loads they seem to move with ease.

As well as other family members these bikes are used to carry basically whatever will fit on them without falling off.

Here are my favourite spots so far in Leon:

5. A man with a young baby on his knee. The baby moving up and down with the motion of the pedals.

4. Four chickens. Two hanging off each handlebar. Upsidedown of course. Not a pretty sight.

3. A full length wardrobe mirror carried under one arm while the other arm steered and desperately kept balence.

2. A whole crate of beer resting on the cross bar.

1. Two freshly iced birthday cakes without boxes or any form of covering. One balenced on each hand - waiter style - by the passenger perched on the handlebars. Unfortunately I can´t verify if any made it in one peice.

I´m with stupid

Firstly apologies for the lack of updates. My professor is working me hard. Days usually consist of 4 hours study, lunch at 12 and then onto the library for around 2 for more study/homework. By the evening I´m exhausted.

I do have time to give you a quick insight into Nicaraguan fashion though.

You know when you dump your old t-shirts outside the charity shop once in a blue moon? The ones that advertise the gym that you joined but never used. Well, this is where they end up. They´re mainly American but I have seen a few English brands. And I would say that by the majority of the people wearing them have no idea what they´re promoting or urging people to do.

Here are the top 5 t-shirt slogans.

5. Minnesota Saddlebred Horse Association - Young Nica student on the bus
4. Welcome to Fort worth, Houston. Please set your clocks back 100 years
3. For your viewing pleasure - splashed across the chest of a middle age conservative looking lady.
2. About 100 God is Love tshirts probably handed out by the many evangelical missionaries making huge inroads in Nicaragua.
1. And finally, seen on an extra large chap you wouldn't mess with:
´THE NEXT SALE´ across his gut and on the back ´STAFF´.
I was tempted to ask for the whereabouts of the chinos but didn´t think him and his beefy mates would have seen the funny side.

Monday, 30 April 2007

Leon´s literary circuit, and more

Last week I hit Leon´s champagne and canape circuit - unfortunately without the champagne and canapes - with my guide Dennis.

On Monday to commemorate the anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare the university invited a poet from the capital, Managua, to give a talk and read some of her poems. Dennis [who is also a poet] gave a short introduction to proceedings which received many laughs and was followed by three other introductions (15 mins each). Finally the poet took to the podium and talked for about an hour and a quarter. Unfortunately the volume on the mic was low and the air conditioners - a rare treat in this city - on full blast. Consequently of the 2 hours+ I barely understood a word. Still everyone else enjoyed it.

The following day was the 40th anniversary of Leon Viejo restoration fund. Leon Viejo was formerly Nicaragua´s capital in about the 1600´s is one of the oldest Spanish colonial cities in the Americas.

Many local historians and writers were there as the panel of 4 speakers each said their piece. Three people spoke for about 20 minutes each and then the main guest, a well respected 90-year-old lifted his head from his cane and talked animatedly about about Nicaraguan history in general. After 50 mins he received a prod from a fellow panel member to either wrap it up or get to the point. Well, he did neither and 30 minutes later he received another prod which seemed to do the trick. So, after that did we go for drinks and discussion in the pristine gardens? Alas not, the first speaker came on and had another go for 10 mins.

Unfortunately I didn´t understand much of this talk either. I think it´s mainly the accent and the speed which I´m told eventually I´ll tune into and it´ll all make sense.

From these events though and a few others as I´ve sat there desperately trying to comprehend I´ve come to the conclusion that Latin men just love to talk. Even if half the audience are nodding of and in one instance a woman even made (not took) a phone call without even bothering to leave the room.

I´ve also been seriously impressed by the respect for Leon´s culture and the passion in which it´s talked. There are a bunch of dedicated people here working hard so people won´t forget. And from what I hear it´s an uphill struggle. The government doesn´t have much interest in the nation´s art and culture such organisations do not receive subsidy. What´s also surprising is that in a nation that prides itself on it´s writers and poets no one seems to read in Nicaragua. In Leon, the third biggest city, there are no bookshops, just one place selling secondhand works of Lenin. Yesterday in the paper there was an editorial entitled ´Why don´t we read more?´

I don´t what the answer is but if the champagne and canape circuit is to continue they need to start attracting young people. A 5 minute limit on opening speeches might be a good start.

The past tense - number 1

Last week - with a different teacher - I was taught one of the past tenses. The past participle I think. As with any Spanish tense there are also multiple irregular verbs thrown in. Each set of irregulars has a rule applied to them. This one has 11 rules ranging from, change the O to an E, if it ends in ´gar´ switch it to ´gue´ and my favourite, the 5th group: verbos muy irregular, where there aren´t any rules.

When we get to the rules it´s like someone putting the brakes on. You´re travelling along at a steady speed taking on board all conjugations when suddenly the logic no longer applies and the learning curve grinds to a halt. Still, I guess it´s just a case of remembering them. Whenever I pull a face at the strange rules I am told that English is far more difícil.

I have found that it´s opened the door though to more fulfilling conversation. Given that the interesting things that happen to people are in the past tense it´s nice to be able to talk about them. As long as it does´t involve an irregular verb.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Turned out nice, again

I promised you some politics but so far I´m struggling to fully comprehend all the stories I read and hear.

The biggest story in town seems to be the impending arrival of the rains and whether they´ll be on time. They´re due at the start of May and are desperately needed. As well as this place being a total dust bowl the actual water supply for the town is far lower than it´s been in recent years and is in desperate need of a wet winter.

As for me, I can´t wait either, this place needs a cooling down. However, I´ve also heard that it can rain non stop for whole weeks at a time. A bit of moderation would be appreciated.

Monday, 16 April 2007

View from the Cathedral

See the bright coloured church - Iglesia Calvario?
My Spanish school is about 100 metres in front it.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Adventures with Dennis

I´m really getting into my afternoon excursions with Professor and poet Dennis. I´ve since learnt that a professor is actually a teacher so from here on in he´ll just be know as Dennis.

After Monday´s tour of the old city the following day we went to the art gallery. Dennis, who has quite a short attention span - or perhaps he´s done these tours 100´s of times - wasn´t too interested by the painting´s composition, more about the artist´s origin. Italian, Mexican and Nicaraguan artists got huge thumbs up. He would point to the origin and then usher me to the next one before my eye´s had even reached the canvas.

The gallery actually has a very good collection, there´s lots of religious works from Europe but also some good recent Central American pieces and also a Picasso and lots Rembrandt sketches.

Incidentally, Dennis doesn´t like abstract art (arte abstracto) he shakes his head, sighs and generally doesn´t give it the time of day.

Thursday took us to the Mueso Entomologico that is a one roomed museum full of preserved butterflies and cockroaches, not very interesting in itself but the dedicated owner gave a really interesting talk - in Spanish and then in English when Dennis wasn´t in earshot - about how he goes about getting all the creatures (he goes out into the field catches them and trades them with a network of people around the world).

And finally to Subtivia, Leon´s indigenous district. From what I could gather it is autonomous from the government. It also has the country´s oldest, and dilapidated, Cathedral (circa 1620 I think).

We went in and an excitable Dennis would tug at the fixtures and fittings and say ´muy muy antigua´(very very old) as a piece of altar almost crumbled away in his hand.

In the midst of this daily excitement, if we ever run out of things to say (or I want a break from cathedrals and butterflies) we move onto Dennis´favourite subject, English war-time history.

These are a few of his favourite things:

Bomberderos Lancaster - Lancaster bombers
Colonel Montgomery
The Halifax bombers (wasn´t aware of this one)
Winston Churchill
oh, and aside from the war, the Beatles

Looking forward to next week.

One week down...

So, I´ve successfully completed this week´s tuition and I´m actually beginning to enjoy it. The first few days were really hard, from the moment I woke to the last thing at night every word I uttered aloud was in Spanish.

You expect this to be the case, however, when everything you want to communicate from being passed the milk to trying to ask ´how do you know when a verb is irregular´ it´s pretty draining.

Slowly things are becoming easier. I bought a mobile phone and was informed how to buy credit and register it - not an easy job at the best of times. And, I had a haircut that actually turned out OK, apart from the sideburns that taper to a point, which comes as standard with a haircut here anyway.

Things are good in the house too. The owner, Hilda, makes her living from renting the rooms and is home all the time. So, after classes we usually sit down for lunch - which is the main meal of the day - and exchange a few pleasantries then she does some texting (she´s always texting) and I make a start on homework.

The evenings are when people get back from work and we may sit round the table for an hour. Where I rifle through my dictionary trying to keep up/join the conversation.

Then everone goes off to watch TV in their rooms and if I feel I´ve done enough Spanish for the day I may go to the local bar and read my book.

On the weekendve allowed myself a small indulgence. There´s a bar a few minutes walk away that´s run by a Bristolian. They have really good food there and show the football highlights.

So, I´ve decided that one night per weekend I´ll go there and enjoy some good Bristolian humour and whilst watching the football in Spanish. Not that I´m a huge fan but it beats the national sport of Beisbol.

And that´s my routine for now.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Back to escuela

On Easter Monday I had my first Spanish lesson at the school. It was intense. Given that there´s not many students there at the moment -I´m hoping it´s a quiet time rather than a poor school - I´m receiving one-to-one tuition which is obviously good but a total shock to sit down on a Monday morning and be given an exam and then straight into adjetivos posesivos, followed by me reading a chapter of a children´s book. I have four hours of this everyday.

Still, I was looking forward to the afternoon activities. Everday for the first three weeks there´s an activity go on. Today I had a tour of the historical part of town with a local guide. Of course it didn´t click until I met the guide that because I am only new student at the school I am the only one on the tour. So, I got the old 45 minute talk about freedom fighters with cathedrals and poets thrown in.

The funniest thing was the fact that my guide is a professor and a bit of a poet so lots of people were stopping him in the street to say hello. And when it came to the women he would chat for slightly longer and try and coax a phone number out of the them. My Spanish is poor but I think I knew what he was up to.

Right, time for homework.

Timothy Lumsden in Leon

On Sunday I moved into my new home for the next 8 weeks. I´m pleased to say that it´s pretty much what I expected.

On the positive front, it has a balcony, a fan and a TV (for my favourite Nicaraguan soaps) and the shared bathroom is rustic but fine.

On the slightly negative side, the door doesn´t open on to the balcony, the mattress on the bed is shaped like the letter U and if that doesn´t stop me sleeping, the building site next door kicks in at around 5.30. Normally you´d get the environmental health to sort the latter but in this town everyone seems to be awake at that time so it´s not really a problem.

As for the family, there´s a mother called Hilda and her daughter also called Hilda (aged 6). Hilda junior may be the key to me improving my conversational Spanish. She is the one who asks me questions and finds it hilarious when I get it wrong, such as when I said I had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend (I said novio instead of novia). Don´t think there´s many out and prouds in Leon yet.

There is also another part of the house where students from the local uni stay - they´re slowly coming back from the Easter break. So, I´m looking forward to heated debates around the dinner table as my Spanish improves.

On the subject of food. I´m going to have to ask Hilda to ease of on the comida (food). I have three meals a day (7am, 12pm, 7pm) and all seem to be getting larger by the day. This morning with my fruit salad I was given a big plate of rice, beans, sausages and tortilla. I made a valiant effort but had to leave half of it. Now how do I get that one across without offending?

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

One to One with a former freedom fighter

Today was my first day on Leon, Nicaragua. Having lapped the square with the iconic cathedral far too many times I decided to take shelter from the oppressive 36 degree heat in the Galeria de heroes y martires. A small museum run by former guerrillas detailing the history of the civil war.

Sadly the main man - who is known to do a good tour in basic English - wasn´t about. So I told the Spanish guide I could speak ´poco Espanol´(a little) and would take his tour. He proceeded to talk animatedly for 45 minutes about the struggle to which I nodded and said ´Si, si´.

At the end of the tour he smiled and said ány questions´, that, I could comprehend.

Unfortunately having only understood about one word in ten and having no idea how or what question to form, I smiled and said no thanks.

I then left the bemused ex Sandinista with a promise in bad Spanish to return after my course and do the tour again.

My Spanish is hopeless. Lessons start next week.

Some rules

There´s a lot of blogs out there (I think it´s called the blogosphere?) many written by travellers looking for life changing experiences. And, regardless of the country or region they all seem to sound the same.

So, I will try and avoid the referring to warm hearted peasants, crazed bus drivers and stunning scenery.

Instead I´ll tell you what it´s like living with a local family, learning Spanish in a short space of time and perhaps share a few lines with those of you who are fluent.

I´ll also try and convey what it´s like living in the second poorest country in the Americas. A country recovering from a protracted civil war, beset by natural disasters that recently re elected the former guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega after a 17 year break.

If I do happen to see the most amazing scenery whilst on a white knuckle bus journey sat next to a beaming peasant then I may have to tell you about it.

What´s the hurry?

I am 31 and for the last ten years I´ve been determined to learn Spanish. After various unsuccessful attempts at tuition I decided that the best way to do it was to immerse myself and go to Spain. Besides another ambition on my wish list is to live in a town house with tiled floors and a large roof terrace in a cobbled suburb of Seville - I wanted this way before Sarah Beaney was selling homes abroad.

During the subsequent years I´ve been saving up for this trip a few things have changed; I have a house which comes with responsibility and a permanent draw on the finances, I have a lovely girlfriend and the venue has changed.

Greetings from Nicaragua
There are two reasons why I opted for a long 16 flight rather than a quick hop on easyjet. Firstly, my money will go a lot further in Nicaragua and secondly, given that the job I just left was for a large NGO - and realistically the house in Seville isn´t going to happen for a while - I should probably give some thought to a life after this. Six months learning Spanish and volunteering for a local organisation will hopefully not only be extremely rewarding but also look good on the CV.

So, the London pad is being rented, I have some money in the bank and my now lovely Fiancee has reluctantly let me go.

This is it, here I am in the historic town of Leon surrounded by volcanoes and people who speak not a word of English. I have six months to learn it. Wish me luck