Small Towns in Texas Tour

blue bell creameries black delivery truck

I arrived in Houston and our first stop was a true, Texan dinner of chicken fried chicken, okra, mashed potatoes, and sweet iced tea. They just don’t do it like this anywhere else!The next morning we headed straight to Brenham, home of the Bluebell Ice Creamery. We toured the factory and had a taste of the freshest ice cream I’ve ever had. Nothing beats fresh Bluebell. And, this is their 100th anniversary!

blue bell creameries black delivery truck
Deah, at Blue Bell Ice Cream Creamery

After our tour, we drove through Washington-on-the-Brazos and checked out the heritage museum there. The weather was warm and the bluebonnets were in bloom along the sides of the roads. We stayed off the main highways and took smaller roads our whole trip, which really showcase the beauty of the scenery of our beautiful state. On the way into College Station, we stopped at Messina Hof winery and bought some wine. Once we arrived, we spent the evening at the Dixie Chicken and Fitzwilly’s, eating Tijuana Fries and playing shuffleboard and dominos.

The next morning we continued our journey west (after a brief stop at the original Freebirds), and wound up in Shiner, Texas, home of the Spoetzl brewery. We missed the tour but still got to taste four free samples of different Shiner beers. Definitely worth visiting if you’re in the area. From there we went to New Braunfels for some German weinerschnitzel and sausage and potatoes. We spent the night there.
On Friday we backtracked to the south just a bit to hit the Natural Bridge Caverns, and took our time exploring the cave. Fascinating geology there. I remember going as a child. Leaving the caverns, we took the back route through New Braunfels, San Marcos, and up to Gruene. I really enjoyed walking through the tiny (like, 1 block!) city of Gruene. We got a great picture of the dance hall, and found out our favorite artist, Guy Forsythe, was actually having a cd-release party there the next night. We visited a western outfitter store where Chris picked up a great aussie hat- should come in handy when he’s in Africa. We ate lunch (it was more like breakfast, lunch, and dinner) at Adobe Verde, the best Tex-Mex I’ve had. They should really put a warning on the menu about the size of their burrito.

Bypassing Austin for the time being, we drove up to Waco. The next morning, Saturday, we awoke to a surprise: 30 degree weather and rain, which later turned into sleet and then snow! The Texas Ranger Museum was a block from our hotel, so we toured that and spent a couple of hours learning about the Rangers (the law enforcers, not the baseball players). Then it was time to head to West, for our rendezvous with Ken and Misty, who had arranged to meet us for lunch. We met at the Czech stop, picked up some kolaches, and then went down the street for some barbecue. We wound up spending several hours there, eating great barbecue and playing country songs on the juke box, practicing our two-step and drinking beer. We got some cute pictures outside of us in the snow, and Chris, Ken, and Mysti had a snowball fight (I was in the car with the doors locked).

On Sunday we drove to Huntsville, and found Sam Houston’s grave, which was ironic, as I am teaching a chapter on Texas and the West in my history class this week. From there we went back to Houston, as we both had to fly out of town the next morning. Although we had been avoiding chain restaurants all week (Freebird’s doesn’t count), we couldn’t resist a final steak dinner at Saltgrass Steakhouse in Houston. And it was totally worth it. Monday came too soon, and it was time for Chris to head to Africa and me to return to Nicaragua. Luckily for him, he had a direct flight from Houston (15 hours) and so did I (only 3 1/2 hours). We both made it back to our respective homes, safe and sound, and started another week at work. For me, I can feel my school year in Nicaragua starting to wrap up.

Selva Negra, Tissey and Montibelli in Nicaragua

rock paintings at Esteli

When we returned to Nicaragua in January, Kristen and I went to Selva Negra, a cool little retreat up in the more mountainous area of Nicaragua, where the weather is much cooler and rainier. Can’t wait to go back there when it starts getting totally hot here. When you live in really hot countries, you have identify the cool zones!

The new president, Daniel Ortega, was inaugurated. Strange political leanings are unfolding, as he allies himself more with Chavez and Castro than the US. Great. Hopefully things won’t get too crazy around here. School started, the kids seem to be doing pretty well, fairly focused- and we’re in it for the long haul between now and Spring Break. Chris just left for Angola and is getting settled in there. Hopefully we can meet again during my spring break- but for now, gotta get through the next nine weeks of work.

We haven’t had any three-day weekends, but we have tried to get out of town several times to explore the countryside around Managua. A few weeks ago we went up near the town of Esteli, to a natural reserve called Tissey. A bunch of us from work camped in cabins and hiked all around, finding some beautiful miradors (lookouts) and interesting finds such as a soapstone quarry, a small cheese factory, and a somewhat bizarre old man who has been carving statues and designs on the side of a mountain for the last 30 years.

A couple of weeks later, another group of us went to the Montibelli Nature Preserve, just a few miles outside of Managua. We went on a hike and looked at different kinds of trees, butterflies, birds, and even some monkeys. Then we had a fabulous dinner there, and pitched tents. Later that night, as it was a full moon, we went on a moonight hike to the top of a hill, and could see a beautiful panorama: a full moon, the city of Managua to one side, Lake Managua, and to the other side, Volcano Masaya, with its clouds of steam floating off towards the Pacific Ocean, clouds that you can actually see from space! It was an incredible view, one that unfortunately is only captured in my mind, as it was too dark for pictures to turn out well.

And finally, Kathleen had a friend, Linde, visit, and we took her to San Juan del Sur for some beach action last weekend. We hopped on a bus Saturday morning and spent the afternoon walking around the town and the beach with our little dogs (there are three of them now, Consuela, Lucia, and Bella). That night there was a huge party on the beach, with a live band, a dj and “flor de cana” dancers, and plenty of beers, for 10 cordobas each (roughly 60 cents US).

We stayed at the beach party, dancing and drinking, until the band stopped playing- 1? 2? I don’t even know. Then we went to a beach bar down the beach and sang karaoke there. More good times. More cheap beers. Finally we made our way back to our room, where all four of us girls and all three dogs were staying together. At least we had a/c.

I took Bella for a walk the next morning and we had a big breakfast at one of the restaurants on the beach. We spent the day around town, and then Alecia and I headed back to Managua while Kathleen and Linde stayed to enjoy the rest of Sunday and take Monday off. Alecia and I, and the two pups, endured the bus ride from hell back to town- standing room only the whole way, with more people squeezing on with each stop. It took forever and we were in pretty foul moods by the time we were done. But we did finally make it home.

Nicaragua: The Sandinistas Win the Election, and We Visit the Corn Islands

Corn Islands infinity pool

The past few weeks have just been gearing up for the elections. To put it simply, there are three major parties and candidates up for the presidential election this Sunday. There is the FSLN, which is the Sandinista Party, and Daniel Ortega is the candidate. He is a former president (read: dictator) who was in power from 1979-1990. Opposing Ortega are two front-runners, both splinters from the PLC party (Liberal Constitutional Party), Eduardo Montealegre, and Jose Rizo. So, in this crazy country, a candidate needs just 35% of the vote, and a 5% lead over the next guy, to win the Presidency. Right now Ortega is polling at 33.9%, and Montealegre at 28.8%. A run-off would consolidate the votes against Ortega, but if he pulls ahead of 35%, the Sandinistas could win this election.

It has been hotter than hell here in Managua. We have major power cuts- up to 5 hours a day. The classrooms (tin buildings built as ‘temporaries’ after the 1972 earthquake) heat up like little Easy Bake ovens with teachers and students in them. Without fans and lights they are like little boxcars. And the rainy season started, which is nice when it rains, as it cools things off, but when it rains in school, the rain on the tin roofs of the building make it so loud that you literally can’t hear anything in the classrooms. Tons of fun. Things were really building to a head by the end of October, but I have to say that December has been better- temperature wise and everything else. The mornings are actually a little chilly and the afternoons are pleasant.

We got dressed up and went out dancing for my birthday this year

We had a Thanksgiving dinner celebration at the cottages, with at least 26 people coming. The maintenance staff from school set up a tent in case of rain. The next morning, the girls and I left for Corn Islands. The islands aren’t very big- Big Corn (population 8,000) is 10 square km and Little Corn is only 3 square km. We spent 4 days just lying around. We never did get over to Little Corn Island, because the seas were too rough to boat over there, so we just stayed on Big Corn. The first night we stayed at a little hotel on the west side of the island that had no electricity, and it was a cool, windy day, so we just unwound, took walks on the beach, and went to bed early. We were pretty tired because our Thanksgiving Feast had gone on until about midnight, and we had to be up early to catch our flight to the Caribbean side of Nicaragua.

We walked from our first hotel into the main town on the island, which was at the north end, and checked out the dive shop and the one restaurant in town. We changed hotels, and wound up on the east side of the island, at a hotel called Casa Canada. A fabulous little place, it had its own generator (thus, electricity!), a beautiful pool, a/c in the rooms, cable tv, and a great king size bed. The four of us, plus our pups Lucia and Consuela, were quite happy there. We hung there Friday and Saturday, and took little walks down to the south end of the island to check out the sandy beach there, and walks into town. Kathleen and I rented bicycles and pedaled around for a while. We tried snorkeling but the jellyfish got us, and I decided the pool and a chaise lounge was really all I needed.

There weren’t many restaurants on the island- I think we tried them all- and one night we met up with Kedra, Yakshi, and Kyle (our neighbors from ANS) and had lobster and beers with them at a dock-restaurant called Anastasia’s. Very fun. Great food. There was one dance hall on the island, a reggae place that wound up playing all kinds of music.

Eventually it was time to go back to work, so we returned to Managua. Luckily for me, a week later Chris came to visit, so we did a quick tour of the nearby sights. We stayed at the Laguna de Apoya, and hiked around Volcano Masaya. We had breakfast with the girls, and went to a couple of nice dinner places in town. All too soon it was time for him to leave and for me to go back to work.

Chris at Volcano Masaya

This week we only had a four day work week, as Thursday night was “La Purisima“, and we had Friday off (to recover, I guess). There are several theories on Purisima, but the most common is that it celebrates the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary by her mother, Ana. In particular, Purisima is hugely celebrated in Nicaragua in the town of Leon. Stories varied on why it was celebrated there, but one story said that when the volcano near Leon was erupting, the residents prayed to the Virgin Mary, and the lava did not destroy their town. So now Purisima is celebrated there each year (as in other parts of the country). Basically, it’s a combination of Halloween, Fourth of July, and Christmas. Groups of people go from house to house, caroling Christmas songs (in Spanish). They go to houses that are marked with a shrine to the Virgin Mary in front. The people- from young kids to old people- sing songs and then are rewarded with little treats, ranging from galletas (cookies) to little cakes, cacao (a kind of chocolate milk) to other things such as matchbooks or toothbrushes. All the while, fireworks are going off practically all night (as they have been for the past week-fun, but a little annoying, and it’s driving the dogs crazy). The fun part about Leon is some of the people have houses there that were built literally hundreds of years ago, and have been really well kept up, and some of them open up parts of their houses to visitors, so you can see their art works and hand-made furniture and all kinds of turn-of-the-century furnishings. Also, Leon has the largest cathedral in Central America (the story goes that the plans for the Lima, Peru church were mixed up with the Leon, Nicaragua church and it was built here instead), as well as several other cathedrals throughout the city. A place with a fascinating history, including the Sandinista period in this century.

December update: Most people are recovering from the shock of the Sandinistas winning. Only time will tell what the end result of that election will be. Today a man from Gran Pacifica came to talk to us (anyone wanting to buy a beach house should check out their site) about the likely foreign investment scene here for the next few years (main idea was that “hopefully” things will be fine…). None of our kids/families left Nicaragua although some “plan” to leave at the end of the school year…. but we’ll see. In my experience (worldly as it is), families don’t start leaving until people start dying… or their land gets nationalized. We’ll see how it goes.

Granada, Omotepe, and Lake Nicaragua

omotepe volcano with white cloud nicaragua

In late September, Alecia, Kathleen, Kristen and I hared our first hash here, at the Volcano Masaya National Park. I guess it’s the first time I’ve really looked into a volcano- this summer Lisa and I went part way up Mt. Pelee in Martinique, but didn’t really see much of it. This one, Volcano Masaya, has sulfuric steam bellowing out of it and is really deep inside, and from the far side of the rim (which is now blocked off after someone fell in), you can actually still see the molten magma in there! Very cool! In 2000, the volcano suddenly threw out a single boulder and crushed a tourist’s car! The natives used to sacrifice people to the volcano to keep it calm. All in all it was a really fun run, as it was about 8 km to the top, which was about as difficult as the 8 km back to the bottom.

Kathleen and I took a day trip to Granada, a cute little town about 45 minutes away, right on the edge of the big lake here, Lake Nicaragua (or Lake Colciboca, depending on who you ask). Alecia didn’t go with us, because she just got a new puppy- Lucia! We did take Conseula with us and walked around the little town, visiting art galleries, little museums of indigenous art, and eating food at several little restaurants- we had really great huevos rancheros in the morning and later a great burrito- more Mexican than Nicaraguan.

Work is going well- I gave my AP kids their first test, and they all passed- and one kid only missed three out of 60 questions! That is like unheard of for a first AP practice test. I think this class (there’s seven of them) are like a little group of geniuses. I truly look forward to their class each day. Each of them has such a unique personality.

Living in Managua… well, that’s probably the least great part about Nicaragua. We are continuing to have energy problems, and this past week we had huge blocks of time- like eight hours- that we had no electricity. That means no lights, no fans, no a/c, no internet server, no IM, no toaster oven. We lost power four days in a row, and we would just have to suffer through it or take a taxi to another part of town and try to go to a cafe or the mall or something. Our cottages are not pleasant to be in with no power.

Finally the moment we’d all been waiting for….. 2 pm on Wednesday, we were off work for vacation. Independence Day holiday. We left Thursday morning to take the bus to the little town of San Jorge, on Lake Nicaragua, and then to ferry over to Omotepe, the island out in the middle of the lake (pop. 35,000). We took Consuela and Lucia with us and packed our bags, ready for a short, backpacking adventure! When we arrived in the tiny little town of Moyagalpa on the island, we met a couple who were going to Playa Veneczia, a little guest-house on a beach. We hopped a ride with them and went to check it out. They had one room left, so we stayed there Thursday night. A cute little guest house, we stayed in a room with two double beds and a fan and a bathroom- windows open, a nice lake breeze at night. $25 for the room for the four of us. We swam in the lake, went for a nice walk along the beach and into this forest- where we could hear howler monkeys around us but didn’t see any. Foolishly, we stopped at a beach bar down the way and drank beer until after dark and then realized too late that we had no flashlight to get back to our place! We had to make a human chain, with poor Kristen in the lead, and feel our way back to our hotel- in the pitch dark. We had a nice dinner, and met other travelers hanging around the restaurant. So many backpackers in Central America; it is truly fascinating to talk to all these people from other countries- on this trip alone we met an Israeli, a Frenchman, a Swede, some Brits, some Italians, and other Americans.

Friday morning, we rode in the back of a pickup truck to the other side of the island, where we were hoping to stay at Finca Magdalena, a cooperative coffee plantation that is also a hostel, and starts the trail to climb Volcano Maderas, one of the two volcanos on the island (the other one is Concepcion). You can stay there in your tent, in a hammock on the balconies, in a dormitory-style room filled with cots, or in a “matrimonial”- double- room. Kristen and I shared a room, $8. Central America is so great.

We had arrived too late in the day to hike up the volcano, they said, and there were no guides available anyway….. so of course Kristen and Kathleen and I hiked up it anyway. Well, halfway; we got up a little past the 2 km mark, but it had taken us 2 1/2 hours and we didn’t have much more water, and we still had almost 2 more kilometers to go. So we had to admit defeat and go back down. But we had fun! And I saw two monkeys! The first one scared the shit out of me- I was leading up the trail, and I turned a corner, and there’s a freaking monkey sitting there looking at me! I screamed, turned around, and went to hide behind Kristen. The second one I saw climbing some trees farther away and I wasn’t scared. That night we ate dinner at the finca- gallos pintos, pollo alla plancha, and cervezas, of course. We watched the most amazing sunset ever, watching the sun drop over this giant lake, behind two volcano cones. Being Independence Day, there was a dance party at the nearby town of Balgue, so we walked down there that night (with a flashlight this time!) to check it out. Everyone from three towns around bused in for the occasion, sponsored by the local beer, of course.

We spent all Saturday getting back to Managua. Bus from Balgue back to Moyagalpa, and this bus was accurately described in the guidebook as “wretched”. It was filled with everything from fruit flies to bananas to chickens to coffee and way too many people. It went slower than I could have walked. I feared we would get stuck in the mud. Although I have to say, I sat in the back, perched on several bags of coffee, and they did make a pretty comfortable seat. We ferried back to San Jorge, and caught an express bus to Managua. Happily, we’ve had power at home and today we are relaxing and getting ready for work this week.

Nicaragua: Laguna de Apoyo, the Achuapa Music Festival, and San Juan del Sur

three girls in Achuapa Nicaragua

In August I flew to Nicaragua with three other new teachers, who are also all living in on-campus housing. We were welcomed at the airport by our director and taken to our cottages on the school campus, where we unpacked and settled in. They had even done some grocery shopping for us, so we had some essentials already there for us.

The next days were spent in new teacher orientation and getting to know the city. We had a doctor speak to us, a security advisor, and we met with our principals. We also were taken to the grocery store, the mall, and to lunch. So we’re beginning to get our bearings around the city. I’m so happy to be living somewhere with a mall and a movie theater!

On Friday night, our director, Elsa, had all the new staff (about 25 people- half US and half local or other nationalities) over for a dinner at her house. She has a fantastic, typical Central American house. Lots of gardens and greenery, very spacious, and a pool. She fed us caballo bayo, a dinner that is tortillas, beans, rice, pico de gallo, pork, beef, chicken, vegetables, and sour cream. It was wonderful and went great with a cold Tona, the local beer.

Over the weekend, we went to the Laguna de Apoya. We stayed at a lovely little resort on the lake and spent the day there. They have a beautiful volcanic lake, at a perfect temperature, and we went on a hike to the top of the crater (okay, we didn’t make it all the way to the top; the lake and a round of mojitos were calling us back).

Monday and Wednesday were teacher work days. This year I will be teaching 8th grade US History, and 12th grade AP US Government. Tuesday was a religious holiday, Santo Domingo. Alecia, Kristen and I took a cab to lunch and then to Huembes Market, a big outdoor market where you can find just about anything you could ever look for, all at cheap prices. You just have to have patience.

It’s been quite hot here, and our classrooms don’t have a/c. They do have windows along two sides and plenty of fans. My apartment has a/c in my bedroom, so that is a relief. It rains often, as it is the rainy season, making everything green and cooling it off. In the evenings I’ve been running on the track at school.

Th second weekend we were here, Kathleen and Kristen and I set off for a great adventure- to find the Casa Ben Linder house in Managua, a non-profit organization that had set up transportation to a music festival in the tiny city of Achuapa, several hours away. We took Consuela, Kathleen’s chihuahua, with us for the adventure, and got a taxi and found the Ben Linder house. About fifteen people showed up for the ride, mainly various NGO workers, aged 25-40, and off we set.

We rode the bus up through Leon, then to El Sauce (I love the name of that town), and finally down a loooong (22km) dirt road, and we arrived in Achuapa. This music festival has been going on for 6 years now. When we arrived in town, we signed up at a little casa. The volunteers for the music festival set us up with local families to stay in their houses. Kathleen, Kristen and I, as well as some others from our bus, all stayed in a large room at a family’s house (with Consuela, of course). All this was free!

We set off for the town square (two streets over) and found us some Tona and some food. We had pollo frito, gallo pinto, queso fresco, and mucho cerveza. When we paid, our total for the 3 of us was $12US. Nicaragua rocks!

We drank beer and stayed up as long as we could, but the music festival went all night and we only made it to 2 am, I think. We met a guy named Matt who was backpacking the area; he was brave enough to go onstage and sing Sublime for us. We kept running into people from our bus. On Sunday we all bussed back to Managua.

Luckily, we only had three days of work, and then a holiday! As soon as school let out on Wednesday, we hightailed it for the bus depot so that Alecia, Kristen, Kathleen (and Consuela), and I could go to San Juan del Sur. It’s is a great little town about 2.5 hours south of here, becoming quite the little surf capital. We took the bus for 50 cordobas, I think ($3), and got there around 7 pm Wednesday. We found a small guest house/ hostel for $7 for each of us. Alecia and I shared a room right across from Kathleen and Kristen. We immediately headed a la playa and caught the sunset. Mucho gusto! It felt great to get our feet wet and feel the warm sand in between our toes.

We stayed in San Juan for a couple of days and ran into some fun people. San Juan is touristy, but to a lesser degree than somewhere like Cozumel or Puerta Vallarta. I’m sure in years to come it will turn into one of those places. But for now it remains a quiet little town, where breakfast is cheap and there’s plenty of guest houses to stay. It’s easy to get transport in and out and a fun place to visit.

We had a wonderful dinner of pescado a la plancha y gallo pinto y cervezas, and cruised around for a while. We ran into two of our colleagues from school, Yakshi and Kedra. We stayed up late drinking Tonas and looked at the huge full moon, reflected in the ocean. The next day we played in the water and sat on the beach after a great breakfast. We walked over to a former ANS student Emma’s house, at the end of the beach; she is now in med school in the States, home in Nicaragua for her summer break. Her family has a fabulous beach house and we hung out there all afternoon. We walked back into town around sunset for another great dinner, and ran into Kyra and Rachel, two other new teachers from ANS. After dinner we went looked for ice cream, and saw Zack and Erin, our two remaining neighbors. Ah, just like Haiti…. you really can’t go anywhere without seeing everyone you know. Oh, not to mention the three students we stumbled across in town.

We planned on taking surf lessons the third day we were there but it rained, so we just hung out. I love watching the ocean when it rains. We walked around the tiny town, stopping in at markets and buying trinkets. We kept running into the two cute Canadian guys we had met and had drinks with the night before. It really is a small town. At last it was time to head back. Kyra, Rachel, Alecia, and Kathleen took the bus back, and Kristen and I stayed a bit longer. We ran into Yakshi and Kedra, and hopped a ride back into town with them. On the way home, we stopped for quesillos– a new culinary treat for us. It’s a corn tortilla wrapped around a piece of cheese served with a sour cream sauce and grilled onions. Amazingly messy but quite yummy.

We relaxed the rest of this weekend, hanging out in Managua. Sunday we had no electricity for several hours- they are rationing it these days (love the third world!!) so we had to get out of our apartments and head to the mall. They, also, didn’t have electricity, but at least some stores were open and it was fun to walk around. Hello, a mall? Always fun. Tonight we’re all making dinner together and trying to get ready for next week- a full, five-day workweek. I’ve only been in Nicaragua for a month, but I think I’m going to like it here.